A pair of USMNT stars – Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest – will look to participate on Wednesday evening in the glorified midseason showpieces known as the domestic supercups in Italy and Spain.
Here at Yanks-Abroad, we occasionally find a few minutes between writing articles to watch a game or two, so we’ve decided to highlight the occasional YA-relevant game that we are excited about watching; whether it’s some steamy Yank-on-Yank action, a top-billed battle between two powerhouses, a heated derby, or a David vs. Goliath battle that catches our fancy.
This week, we highlight the supercups taking place for Italian and Spanish teams, which traditionally pit the most recent winner of the league against the reigning champion of the domestic cup competition. In reality, these are essentially over-hyped friendlies, however are treated with the pomp and circumstance of a major, meaningful competition.
It should also be mentioned that the organizers of these games in both Italy and Spain have gotten into the habit of using them to spread their brand to lucrative international markets, with games having been played in several cities in Saudi Arabia, China, Qatar and Morocco during the last ten years.
The Italians actually began the trend of sending the participating teams overseas close to 30 years ago, staging the 1993 edition between AC Milan and Torino in RFK Stadium in Washington DC. The fact that this year’s Supercoppa Italiana will take place in Milan’s San Siro is somewhat of a rarity, likely due the complexity of sending both teams to an international destination for a few days in the midst of a pandemic.
The RFEF in Spain, however, has no qualms about inflicting a minor scheduling and logistic inconvenience on several of its teams, as this year’s edition will be staged as a four-team tournament in the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Moving beyond the history of these games, the two matches potentially involving Americans happening on Wednesday are actually everything the origanizers could have hoped for from a marketing standpoint, as each represents perhaps the most storied respective rivalries in both Italy and Spain.
Let’s take a look at these two games to see if it’s worth firing up the second laptop (the Italian edition gets underway just as the second half begins in the Spanish contest) to follow the action.
Supercoppa Italiana: Inter Milan vs. Juventus
Wednesday’s game, with kickoff happening at 9pm Central European Time, will feature historical rivals Internazionale Milan and Juventus, respective holders of the Serie A Scudetto and Coppa Italia trophy in the 243rd official playing of the Derby d’Italia.
These two clubs are on very different trajectories over the last two seasons. Despite losing their most important player, Romelu Lukaku, in the summer, Inter are looking like favorites to win a second straight Serie A title, while Juventus are struggling for a second straight season to even reach the Champions League places.
Nevertheless, what is undeniable has been the emergence of young Weston McKennie as one of the most important and dependable pieces of the puzzle for Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri. While the American has contributed less direct scoring output in terms of goals and assists so far than last season, he has become perhaps the most constant and important two-way player in Allegri’s preferred three-man midfield arrangement.
Put simply, his relentless, energetic play serves to disrupt opponents hoping to make headway towards the Juventus goal, while his ability to quickly trigger attacks with his increasingly improving vision of the attacking dynamic keeps opposing teams wary about taking too many risks in his area of the field.
Juve’s recent loss of Federico Chiesa to an ACL injury that will keep him off of the field for the rest of the season could see McKennie forced to put increased focus on his somewhat under-utilized attacking prowess. The America has become an every-game starter for his team when healthy, so the only factor that could keep him out of the starting lineup on Wednesday could be if Allegri values this midweek exhibition less than their must-win, home league game against Udinese three days later.
Apart from Chiesa, the Bianconeri are quite depleted heading into the game, as starting keeper Wojciech Szczęsny will have to be replaced by Mattia Perin due to COVID protocols, both Juan Cuadrado and Matthijs de Ligt are suspended due to cards picked up in their previous league game (which will have benefits for their availability in league play), defender Danilo is still recovering, and there are concerns about Paul Dybala’s workload.
All in all, this game has all the makings of a chance for McKennie to be forced into a more prominent attacking role, and as a game with little on the line for either team other than a tropy that will be relegated to a forgotten corner of their already-packed trophy cases, is a worthwhile focus of attention on an otherwise mundane Wednesday night.
Supercopa de España: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
Perhaps the most storied national rivalry in the game, El Clásico, will take place for the 248th time in official competition in Riyadh on Wednesday. As luck would have it, this is merely the semifinal of the four-team mini-tournament, however nobody outside of die-hard card-carrying ultras will really care about the final between the winner of this game and one of the two teams in the other semifinal (Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao).
Similar to its Italian counterpart, Wednesday’s game (which is essentially the final as far as any TV ratings, press coverage and ticketing demand are concerned) is another game between a once-prominent powerhouse that has fallen on tough times, and another that has somehow managed to avoid a similar disaster.
It should go without saying that FC Barcelona is the team that is currently having troubles, to put it mildly, largely due to the financial mismanagement that was only waiting for a global pandemic to set of a crisis that would probably lead to fact-finding committees and indictments were it happening to any public institution.
Current head coach Xavi was brought in to restore the old glory of the Blaugrana. While the renowned Catalan legend has provided somewhat of an uptick in results in terms of points-per-game, the team has hardly looked good in the process, and are still facing the humiliating – for their standards – future of navigating the Europa League knockout round in early-2022 and battling for a chance to even qualify for the Champions League next season.
In short, both the team and their new coach have looked out of their depth, even when playing against unfancied domestic foes. I’m sure there is a joke about playing chess and checkers that could be fittingly made at this point, but it’s not like the chance will go away anytime soon, so I’ll keep that one in my pocket for later.
So, what about Wednesday’s game, in particular from the standpoint of its prospects for American player Sergiño Dest to have an impact? The defender has hardly played since October, however has been plagued with several injuries and an untimely COVID result that have been mostly at fault for his inaction.
He was available and on the bench for Barcelona’s stinker of a draw at Granada over the weekend, however it’s impossible to judge anything about his lack of action since he had only returned to training a day or two before, and the entire gameplan was disrupted by a red card that left them on the back foot (and ultimately conceding an equalizer) for the final minutes when it would have made the most sense for Dest to get a post-injury run-out.
Xavi seems to be one for nostalgia, both for the “classic” Barcelona identity of his playing days which, unbeknownst to him, already ceased to exist long ago, and for his ageing teammates of the glory years. In the latter category, this gives added importance to the presence of Dani Alves, who admittedly put in an impressive shift in the weekend’s league game, and is likely the first-choice right back as much as his 38 year-old legs will allow.
The personal gravity and historical implications of Wednesday’s game for the new coach – this is indeed his first El Clásico at the helm – make the Brazilian more likely to start at right back instead of the young American. The marketing perspective of this game also shouldn’t be ignored, and the prospect of having the legendary veteran on the field amongst what will be a group of young La Masia graduates will play well for pre-, in- and post-game hype.
For Barcelona, Eric Garcia, Martin Brathwaite and Sergi Roberto all missed the trip due to injury, while Ronald Araújo, Ansu Fati and Frenkie De Jong are all in Riyadh but not yet confirmed to be in Wednesday’s squad.
Real Madrid have a number of question marks about who will be available to take the field. Gareth Bale, Mariano Díaz, Luka Jović and Dani Carvajal all made the trip, but it’s uncertain whether they will return to action during the course of the tournament.
The winner of Wednesday’s semifinal will play on Sunday against the victor between Atlético and Athletic for the final trophy.
Another worthwhile viewing opportunity in an otherwise uneventful midweek, recent form and overall squad quality would point towards a clear win by Real, which would be a convenient excuse (if Dest is left on the bench as expected) to shift one’s focus after the first half to the contest in Milan.