Improved Barcelona takes on Real Madrid in Super Cup clásico

Real Madrid's Eder Militao, left, challenges Barcelona's Ansu Fati, center, during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)
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MADRID (AP) — The last time Barcelona faced Real Madrid, the team was still coping with the departure of Lionel Messi and one of its worst financial crises ever.

Ronald Koeman was still at the helm, and the Catalan club struggled on and off the field.

The 2-1 loss at Camp Nou in the Spanish league last October came as no surprise to most, highlighting Barcelona’s fragility at the moment.

But things are different as the rivals enter their second “clásico” of the season in the Spanish Super Cup semifinals in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. Barcelona appears to be back on track after restructuring its finances and showing signs of improvement on the field under coach Xavi Hernández.

“It’s a different scenario now,” Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué said. “We were going through a tough moment at that time. We are doing better now and we hope to take advantage of it.”

Triumph in the Super Cup could mean a turning point for Barcelona, the veteran defender said.

“In the situation we are in, each victory, and hopefully the title, would mean a big boost for us,” Piqué told Movistar. “It would give us more confidence and would be important going forward.”

Barcelona has several players back from injury who were unavailable for that league match against Madrid last year, including young midfielder Pedri González. Since then it also added some new signings who could make a difference on Wednesday, including veteran Brazil defender Dani Alves and young Spain international Ferran Torres.

Torres and Pedri recently tested positive for the coronavirus but were cleared Monday to make the trip to Saudi Arabia to join the squad.

The Spanish Super Cup is being played in Saudi Arabia again after the coronavirus pandemic transferred last year’s edition back to Spain.

The Spanish soccer federation reached a deal reportedly worth 120 million euros ($136 million) to play in Saudi Arabia beginning in 2020. The competition was expanded to four teams instead of two and moved from the start of the season to its midpoint. The changes were made despite criticism from human rights activists and complaints from fans who preferred the competition stayed in Spain.

The other semifinal match will be played Thursday between defending Spanish league champion Atlético Madrid and Copa del Rey runner-up Athletic Bilbao.

“It makes no sense to go to Saudi Arabia to play our tournament,” veteran Athletic midfielder Raúl García said. “We are not thinking about the fans anymore.”

Madrid made it to the “Final Four” after finishing second to Atlético in the league last season. Barcelona qualified as the Copa del Rey champion.

Madrid has been in great form heading into Saudi Arabia, with the team leading the Spanish league behind a superb start to the season from its attacking duo of Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior.

Atlético Madrid enters the Super Cup trailing Madrid by 16 points with a game in hand. Athletic is five points further behind Atlético.