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Barca left floundering as gap to Madrid grows

Barcelona (AFP) – Still reeling from having Neymar snatched away by Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona started their season badly in need of reasons for optimism, but instead got a view of the growing gap they face to catch rivals Real Madrid.

Madrid emerged 3-1 victors from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday, but more significantly laid down a marker for the new campaign as their success under Zinedine Zidane shows no sign of abating after a Champions League and La Liga double last season.

Barring a sensational Barca comeback in Wednesday’s second leg at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu, Real will pick up a seventh trophy in less than two years under the Frenchman.

In a familiar tale from last season, it was Madrid’s strength in depth that made the difference as Cristiano Ronaldo and Marco Asensio came off the bench to fire stunning strikes into the top corner in the final 10 minutes to swing the tie Real’s way.

Even a controversial red card for Ronaldo eight minutes from time couldn’t derail Real.

The fact Zidane didn’t feel the need to rush the World Player of the Year back from the start spoke volumes of his confidence in Madrid’s reserves.

Ronaldo ended last season in sensational form after seeing his minutes on the pitch slashed by Zidane to keep him fresh and the plan seems very much the same for the new campaign to ensure the 32-year-old isn’t burned out come the business end of the season.

By contrast, Barca seem more dependant on the brilliance of Lionel Messi than ever in the wake of Neymar’s departure.

The Argentine led his side back into the game and scored from the penalty spot after Gerard Pique’s own goal had given Madrid the lead.

Midfielder Sergio Busquets piled the growing pressure on the club’s board by insisting they “must” sign top quality players to supplement Barca’s ageing squad, whilst new coach Ernesto Valverde said he wanted “the best team” by the time the transfer window shuts on August 31.

“Signings now” ran the front cover of Barcelona-based sports daily Sport on Monday.

– Asensio the difference –

Yet, Barca’s poor record in the transfer market in recent years was exposed once more when Asensio blasted home as the game entered stoppage time.

A disagreement over the instalments in which the Catalans pay the paltry four million euro fee it would take to sign him from Mallorca three years ago saw Madrid nip in to seal the signature of the brightest prospect in Spanish football.

Now at just 21, Asensio, who scored in June’s Champions League final, has now also netted in his last two outings against Barcelona.

“Asensio represents the big difference between Madrid and Barca,” said Madrid sports daily Marca.

“One wins titles, the other loses them. One signs young players with all the talent in the world and the other loses the one who they said would be Messi’s successor.”

The turning tide of Spanish football was even represented in the stands at the Camp Nou.

Any ‘El Clasico’ meeting between Madrid and Barca has become a world event with fans travelling from all over the globe to attend.

However, with tourist season at its peak and many locals on holiday during August, Madrid weren’t greeted with the usual hostility.

Instead, thousands of white shirts were dotted around the Camp Nou and Madrid’s goals were cheered.

“It’s strange what happened with the fans. It’s not nice to see them cheer for the opponent,” said Barca captain Andres Iniesta.

One Catalan TV commentator even remarked “the Camp Nou seems like the Bernabeu” when Ronaldo curled home Real’s second to shrieks of delight.

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