Madrid begins defense of Super Cup title in Saudi Arabia

MADRID (AP) — The Spanish Super Cup is returning to Saudi Arabia with defending champion Real Madrid and Valencia looking to get back on track and Barcelona and Real Betis hoping to maintain momentum.

The first semifinal game on Wednesday features Madrid and Valencia with both teams coming off weekend losses in the Spanish league. Madrid has dropped three points behind league leader Barcelona after a 2-1 defeat at Villarreal. Valencia lost 1-0 to Cádiz at home — its second straight league loss — and is four points from the relegation zone.

Barcelona and Betis meet on Thursday following victories back home. Barcelona rebounded from recent poor results with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Atlético Madrid, while Betis continued its good start to the year with a 2-1 win at Rayo Vallecano to stay in the Champions League spots.

The final is on Sunday at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh.

“We are upset about the game against Villarreal,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We have to see how the team will react in these next matches. The Super Cup is an important test for us.”

This is the fourth edition of the revamped Super Cup, which used to be played only between the Spanish league champion and the Copa del Rey winner. Now the runners-up in both competitions also participate, forming a Final Four tournament. Madrid clinched the league ahead of Barcelona last season, while Betis won the cup final against Valencia.

Madrid won the revamped Super Cup in 2020 and 2022. Athletic Bilbao won in 2021, when the tournament was played back in Spain because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year’s title gave us confidence for the rest of the season,” Ancelotti said. “It’s important to do well, to do better than we did in the last few matches.”

The lucrative contract to play in Saudi Arabia was extended through 2024-25 despite criticism over the nation’s poor human rights record.

MADRID DEPLETED

Madrid will be without defender David Alaba and midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni because of injuries. The regular starters did not travel with the rest of the squad to Saudi Arabia. Dani Carvajal, who had been sidelined recently because of a muscle problem, will be available for Ancelotti.

LEWANDOWSKI FOR BARÇA

Barcelona coach Xavi will be able to count on Robert Lewandowski again after the striker missed the league game against Atlético while serving the first of a three-game suspension. He is allowed to play in the Super Cup, though, and is set to start against Betis.

BOOSTED BETIS

Betis enters the Super Cup boosted by consecutive wins to start the year. The results left the Seville club in fourth place in the Spanish league and with a spot secured in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey.

“It was important to win going into the Super Cup,” Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini said. “We will go with a lot of confidence.”

VALENCIA STRUGGLES

The team coached by Gennaro Gattuso and led by veteran forward Edinson Cavani arrives in Saudi Arabia having won only one of its last eight league games.

“We are going through a tough moment and I’m the first responsible for it because I’m the coach,” Gattuso said. “We have to keep working hard, it’s the only solution.”

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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