THERE  was a time when pre-season consisted of gathering up the smallest local opposition and tearing them apart in a series of bravado-boosting wins between a gruesome few hundred laps around the training complex for good measure. A nauseating test of endurance and will-power that stretched the body to breaking point.

Now it exists as a 14,000 mile round trip through the Far East, North and South America and mainland Europe that's concerned as much with foreign merchandise sales as it is the pursuit of ultimate fitness. Shaking hands here, signing shirts there, appearing in international youth tournaments and enduring a harsh elucidation by your fellow countrymen are just a few of the stress-free activities that fill the hustle and bustle of the relaxing few months between season’s end and the dawn of a bright new campaign.

The millionaires are supposed to spend late June and early July in a hedonistic coma, piling on the pounds and rubbing salt in the grudge-bearing supporters’ wounds with ever empty bottle of Hawaiian Tropic.

Instead, it’s a contractually obligated excursion around the globe with free weekends squeezed among extra cardio and never-ending transfer speculation. It’s no surprise that most pros roll up on the first day of the new season looking completely humped.
At the tail-end of last season, Barcelona and Real Madrid met four times inside 17 frenzy-filled days in May. The Champions League, Copa del Rey and Primera title were on the line in football’s own, unofficial, World Series.

The pressure and expectation around these fixtures isn’t contextual. There’s no alibi for losing. Just three months after a back-breaking finale, the old rivals meet again in the very first fixture of the 2011-12 calendar.

For the Madridistas and Cules there’s no more desirable a start. For those directly involved, it's an untimely examination that adds complication and taxation when they're merely looking to shake off the ring rust.

Barcelona may need more time than the Bernabeu men to find their dancing feet. A poor run of results in pre-season will count for nothing in the grand scheme of things but the frequency in which they were exposed at the back and outmuscled in midfield will be a concern.

A 4-1 defeat to Chivas of Guadalajara a particular low point, especially when Madrid saw them off 3-0. Injuries to Sergei Busquets, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique have left Pep Guardiola desperately short in defence with the release of Gabriel Milito wearing a thin squad right to the bone.

Yet, for all their defensive woes, the introduction of Alexis Sanchez to an already imperious attack seems greedy.

A phenomenal talent with pace, technique and a fondness for a Golazo, the Chilean winger – fresh from an outstanding season with Arsenal's Champions League qualifying opponents Udinese – is a wonderful piece of business from the Catalans and he'll compete for a starting spot alongside Pedro and Ibrahim Afellay.

The arrival of Cesc Fabregas will bring the curtain down on the perhaps the most tedious, obvious and drawn-out transfer in recent memory but it's unlikely to answer any probing questions surrounding a patchwork back four.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, have enjoyed a spotless tour and having lost out to Barca in Europe and in La Liga, they enter what is the traditionally the impressive second season of a Jose Mourinho reign with a steely determination and renewed belief.

Sacking sporting director Jorge Valdano after a series of arguments with The Special One while bringing in club legend Zinedine Zidane helped the former Chelsea boss take full control of the capital club.

An unprecedented display of confidence and faith from Florentino Perez in a man he quite clearly believes holds the key to unlocking Barcelona's stranglehold on both the domestic and continental game.

There have been a few arrivals at the Bernabeu over the summer but the most significant could be a deal rife in criticism.

Fabio Coentrao sealed a £30million switch from Benfica to Madrid and was immediately met with puzzled stares.

The Portugal star has performed impressively and frequently in the left-back role – a position currently occupied at Real by the energetic Marcelo.

However, Mourinho again showed his man-management nous by playing Coentrao everywhere else on the park during pre-season.

He's been outstanding in central midfield, right-back, right-wing and on the left flank, a world-class utility player that could be crucial as the campaign grinds on the likelihood of injuries to key men in defence and attack come to the fore.

Tonight El Clasico becomes El SuperClasico with the two-legged clash starting on the Paseo de la Castellana at 9pm  before ending in sparks and fury in Catalunya on Wednesday.

With the Spanish league in the midst of strike that has delayed the Primera Division kick-off by, at least, a fortnight, this false start will go some way to appeasing the football-starved La Liga crowd.

A winner here is often impossible to predict and with no competitive form to go on, it's into the realms of true guessing games we'll go.

Madrid looked sharper in pre-season but no one can compete with the majesty of Barcelona in full flow, especially if they retain the ball with the same selfish glee they enact time and again when it matters. For the time being, I'm sitting on the fence.


A draw pays out best with bet365 at 12-5 while over three goals between two of Europe's highest scorers last season pays out at 4-1 with Coral.

Messi is 6-4 to find the net at any point and that's definitely worth a look while the likely event of both teams finding the net is 8-11 with Stan James.


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