Former Real Madrid midfielder Steve McManaman admits it will be a ‘toss of a coin’ as to who comes out on top in his old club’s Spanish Super Cup showdown with Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Real had to take the lead three times to sink Barcelona on their way to the Saudi final, with Federico Valverde’s extra-time winner earning them a 3-2 victory over their El Clasico foes in the last four.
As for Bilbao, they produced a dramatic fightback in their own semi-final win against Atletico Madrid, scoring twice late on to dump Diego Simeone’s men out and set up an all-important meeting with Los Blancos.
Real Madrid are set to meet Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final on Sunday
Ex-Real midfielder doesn’t think it will be a foregone conclusion for his old club in Saudi Arabia
Carlo Ancelotti’s men, who currently sit 21 points clear of ninth-place Bilbao at the top of La Liga, will be expected to prevail in the Middle East and add another trophy to the club’s extensive collection.
Yet McManaman doesn’t feel that is necessarily a given, instead insisting Sunday’s final will be a much closer affair than most are anticipating.
‘If you looked at the Premier League and it was Manchester City playing against a team in ninth, you’d just say Manchester City are gonna win easily. But it’s a lot closer between the Spanish sides because of the way they are,’ the ex-England international, who won the Spanish Super Cup during his four-year stint at Real, told Sportsmail.
‘Athletic Bilbao have got a really good chance of winning; they’ve got good players, the manager (Marcelino) has been excellent, so he’ll certainly do his homework against Real Madrid and it is gonna be a toss of a coin who wins.
Madrid had to take the lead three times to see off arch-rivals Barcelona in the semi-final
Bilbao came from behind to score two late goals in their 2-1 victory over Atletico Madrid
McManaman thinks Sunday’s showpiece between the two sides could go either way
‘I think Real Madrid are the favourites and probably the better team because it’s easy to say that, but I don’t think there’s as much as a gulf in class as there would be in other leagues.
‘I think it’ll be a lot closer than what people will perceive. It’s because people see Real Madrid in a final they think “they’ll win easily”, but that’s very disrespectful to Athletic Bilbao.’
In the midst of a difficult season for their great rivals, Real were expected to see off Barca in much more emphatic fashion on Wednesday night.
Instead, Xavi’s young Catalans side went toe to toe with the league leaders in an impressive display; recovering from a goal down on two occasions and dominating play for large parts of the evening.
As a result, it was Barca who swept up most of the praise from that five-goal thriller in Saudi, with a below-par Madrid perhaps fortunate in the end to reach the final.
So should Ancelotti have any concerns heading into Sunday’s showpiece? McManaman doesn’t think so.
‘Normally finals and Real Madrid go hand in hand,’ he continued. ‘Carlo is experienced enough and the players he’s going to be talking to have won Champions League and got cups coming out of their ears really.
‘I don’t think there’ll be a huge amount of talking about the occasion or what they need to do to win – it’s not the Real Madrid way.
‘I think they’ll just expect them to play and win the game because they should be better than Athletic Bilbao across the board. Madrid are in the Champions League, Athletic Bilbao are ninth in the league. There is a difference between them, but of course Athletic Bilbao have been there in recent seasons in cup finals and done the business at times.
Carlo Ancelotti won’t be concerned despite Real’s sluggish display vs Barca, says McManaman
‘So there’s gonna be dangers, but Madrid will go into the game as favourites and rightly so.’
One man Real will be hoping rises to the occasion and makes the difference in Sunday’s final is in-form star Vinicius Jr.
The Brazilian was on hand with his 15th goal of the campaign in Wednesday’s win over Barca, continuing what has been his finest season in a Madrid shirt since arriving from Flamengo back in 2018.
Having rocked up at the Bernabeu with significant hype behind him, Vinicius flattered to deceive in his first three years as a Los Blancos player – but McManaman now feels he is one of Ancelotti’s most important men.
‘I’ve been incredibly impressed with him this year, because this time last year he was taking a lot of criticism in the Spanish papers,’ he said.
Ancelotti will hope in-form star Vinicius Jr can make the difference in Sunday’s final
The Brazilian has been enjoying the best form of his Madrid career so far this season
‘That video was out at the time of Karim Benzema and Ferland Mendy talking in French about not passing him the ball. There was a lot of pressure on him, a lot of pressure on him.
‘I don’t know what’s happened in the summer; I don’t know whether he’s just grown up, or he’s happier, or things have just started to come right – which happens with young players, you improve all the time and good players should improve every year – but since August I think he’s just been brilliant.
‘Every time I’ve seen him he’s been fantastic. Every time I’ve been at games watching him, whether he scores or not, he’s very aggressive, he wants to run forward, he’s very positive, and I’ve been incredibly impressed by him.
‘He’s made a huge jump in his level of form and he’s gone from being a player who flattered to deceive at times to being one of the star men in the team and one of their most dangerous players.’
McManaman feels Vinicius is becoming one of Ancelotti’s most important players in Madrid
Given they remain football’s most decorated club, and with more important outings in the league and Champions League still to come, lifting the Spanish Super Cup this Sunday will hardly represent a watershed moment in Real’s glittering history.
Though having failed to claim any silverware since their 2019/20 La Liga title triumph, a lengthy drought by their own lofty standards, McManaman is under no illusions that they will be desperate to win the trophy.
‘The one thing about Real Madrid is they need to win a trophy,’ he insisted.
‘When you play for Madrid, you need to win things. And they haven’t won things for a number of years so they’ll be desperate to win this.
‘This won’t be a trophy that they’ll look down on. They’ll be out there desperate to win this to bring some silverware back to Spain, and they’ll celebrate it like they haven’t done for a while.’
The ex-England ace expects his former side to treat Sunday’s final with the utmost importance
McManaman added: ‘I’ve lost finals and you can see the disappointment from people, so if there’s a trophy to be won you go and win it. It’s as simple as that.
‘It’s not as important as the league, of course not, it’s not as important as the Champions League, not by a trillion miles and not in the history of Real Madrid, but it’s still vitally important to go and win the trophy, especially against Spanish opposition.
‘The Spanish media are backing it, so it’s important to get over, win the bloody trophy and bring it home to your fans.
‘That’s what they’ll be thinking about and that’s what Florentino (Perez) will be thinking about.’
BT Sport will broadcast the Spanish Super Cup final today (16 January). Watch Real Madrid v Athletic Club live on BT Sport 3 from 6pm tonight.