Real Madrid starts title defense way ahead of Barcelona

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Barcelona: It’s been a long, long time since Real Madrid felt this good going into the Spanish league season.

Madrid displaced Barcelona as the top team in Spain last season by winning the title for the first time in five years. It also successfully defended its Champions League title to complete its first league- European Cup double since 1958.

Add to that this week’s win over a Barcelona team that has been hard hit by the exit of Brazil striker Neymar, and Madrid is bursting with confidence before Sunday’s league opener at Deportivo La Coruna.

Madrid dominated Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate to win the Spanish Super Cup on Wednesday, only eight days after dispensing with Manchester United 2-1 in the European Super Cup.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, however, is trying to keep his players focused on the long haul toward next spring.

“There won’t be any euphoria because we know this will be long,” Zidane said after Madrid’s 2-0 win over Barcelona in the second leg. “This team is hungry and we will try to keep this going. We know that it will not be easy, but we are prepared to accept the challenge.”

Easily lost in the glitter from all the trophies is Zidane’s achievement of crafting a squad that is dangerous no matter who plays.

That depth was on full display in the curtain-raising super cups, when Madrid outclassed its rival powerhouses with very little help from Cristiano Ronaldo. Still regaining his peak fitness, Ronaldo was a second-half substitute against United and in the first leg against Barcelona, when he scored a goal before being sent off.

Marco Asensio, a 21-year-old forward, is also one to watch after his goals from distance against Barcelona. Midfielders Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and Casemiro excelled against United with each scoring, and Madrid has signed young reinforcements Theo Hernandez, Dani Ceballos and Jesus Vallejo to cover the exits of Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Pepe.

The emergence of Asensio and Isco has even put into question the role of Gareth Bale, who didn’t play Wednesday.

“I have a spectacular squad. You don’t notice the changes (to the starting 11),” Zidane said. “We can swap three or four players (in the lineup) and the team doesn’t change. I won’t say we play better, but we still play well, so we are satisfied.”

The extra options will serve Madrid well as it starts the league without Ronaldo, who is suspended for four matches after pushing the referee following his sending off at Camp Nou.

As Madrid has gotten stronger, its challengers have gotten weaker.

Barcelona has been severely hampered by the exit of Neymar, who left for Paris Saint-Germain after its Qatari owners paid the record sum of 222 million euros ($262 million) to trigger his release clause.

That has left Lionel Messi without his favorite partner, and the club is struggling to spend its extra cash on players who can shore up a squad that is clearly a step or two behind Madrid. So far, the only post-Neymar signing is Paulinho, a midfielder.

“We have to bounce back soon because the league is starting,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said, looking ahead to Sunday’s home match against Real Betis. “We have to focus on the league ahead and keep going forward because that’s all we have.”

Atletico Madrid, which has finished third for three straight years since winning the title in 2014, can’t sign new players until January because it broke FIFA rules regarding youth players.

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