Tomorrow evening is perhaps the most important match of Barcelona’s season so far. There may be more important matches to come, but for now, this is the match that could define our season. In fact, it could go some way in defining the whole Pep Guardiola era, that’s just how important tomorrow will be. Sure, it is "only" the Copa del Rey, but who turns away the chance to win a trophy?
Should Barcelona progress to the final tomorrow, then they will most likely contest a final with Marcelo Bielsa and Athletic Bilbao, possibly at the Bernabeu. Imagine how it would feel to win a final at Real Madrid’s home, especially if they go on to claim the league title as expected. Guardiola was cruelly denied the chance two seasons ago, ironically by Jose Mourinho, Inter Milan and a controversial handball; I for one would relish another opportunity.
However, if Lionel Messi and co. lose tomorrow, then there will be have been a clear shift of power away from the Catalan capital; you could even argue that Guardiola’s dynasty will have been tarnished. With the UEFA Champions League returning next week, it is imperative that the Blaugrana build up some semblance of good form. FC Barcelona must beat Valencia.
Mercifully, there have been no further injuries to the depleted squad, but unfortunately, the game is likely to come way too soon for Andres Iniesta, Pedro, and possibly Sergio Busquets. That leaves Barcelona’s midfield looking worryingly short, unless Pep chooses to start Javier Mascherano in defensive midfield, or promotes from the B team, with Jonathan Dos Santos the only viable candidate in that situation. If he does not, then there will only be three first team options for a three-man midfield: Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara.
Admittedly, most teams would kill to have a single one of those three guys on their team, so we cannot complain too much, but for such an important game, and considering none of the trio are in reasonable form, it is a worry. Then again, not as worrying as some will consider Jose Pinto’s place in goal.
Pinto may have been lucky to remain on the field during the first leg after his blatant handball outside the area, but aside from that, I think he played fairly well. He may not be Victor Valdes, but he is good enough for 10 games a season, and if anything, he will carry higher motivation levels than the Catalan.
Defensively, I would switch it up a little with Carles Puyol at right-back. The influential captain started the first leg in the same position, and was impressive both defensively and offensively. Need I remind you about his double ruleta? When Puyol surges forward on the right-hand side you get the impression that nothing will stop him, and that defenders have no idea what is going on. Originally, I thought Puyol only surged forward when the team had amassed a healthy lead, but as of late, he has bombed forward in a way Dani Alves would be proud of.
Gerard Pique can start at centre-back alongside Javier Mascherano, who is fast becoming the best defensive option on the team. The Argentine has been nigh-on impenetrable at the back, while he has been out of sorts in his usual position, so in the interests of fielding the best XI possible, I have Javier Mascherano down as my centre-back partner for Gerard Pique. At left-back, the nod will almost certainly go to Eric Abidal, although Adriano could start if Pep wants to provide more "balance". In that situation, Adriano would have license to roam forward as much as possible, much like Alves does currently provided that Puyol stays back on the right.
Then we get to the midfield, and if Busquets cannot play (he did require over 10 stitches under his knee), which is a distinct possibility, then I think that Thiago will play in defensive midfield. Of the three options he is perhaps the closest match to Sergio Busquets in that he can be a little flashy, but does boast a physical presence. His stamina levels are probably the highest of the three, and simply put, he will be missed the least in attacking midfield.
Shifting Xavi back could in fact shift the whole team backwards, while Cesc has scored 19 goals this season. No-one scores 19 goals from defensive midfield. Thiago on the other hand has been hit and miss in his time further up the pitch, so why not see how a shift back would work for the youngster? That should have hinted that Cesc and Xavi will complete the midfield, and I truly believe that if Busi is out, those three will start in some order.
There is good news for the attack in that Lionel Messi was rested (in training), while Alexis Sanchez has recovered sufficiently from his thigh and collar bone injuries to push for a start. However, I would opt for a front-three of Lionel Messi, Dani Alves and Cristian Tello in an attempt to exploit the space left behind by the forward-thinking Valencia full-backs. Tello is quick enough to cause problems whomever he faces, and considering the trouble Sanchez gave Miguel, Tello could have a field day on the wide Camp Nou pitch.
Tomorrow may be the most important day of the season so far, but I have no reason not to be Peptimistic.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to scrape it 2-1 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.