FC Barcelona are fighting to save their season tomorrow as they travel to Valencia to take on arch-rivals Real Madrid in the final of the 2014 Copa del Rey. Following two successive 1-0 defeats against Atletico Madrid and Granada CF respectively, the Blaugrana have crashed out of the UEFA Champions League and are now four points behind the La Liga leaders. That’s two trophies that have slipped out of reach in less than a week, and now Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid can put what may be the final nail in Gerardo Martino’s coffin tomorrow by securing the Copa del Rey trophy ahead of Barça for the second time in three years.
Of course, the last time these two sides met at this stage of the competition, Los Blancos emerged victorious courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s extra-time header; but Barcelona rebounded in style to knock Real out of the UEFA Champions League. With no such tie to look forward to, it’s now or never for the Blaugrana – and that’s something that is worrying Culés ahead of this game.
That an entire season – and by no means has it been an out-and-out failure from day one – could slip away and quite frankly turn to shit in such a short space of time is concerning. Once again, injuries to crucial players at crucial times have cost us – but they are no excuse. The board have played their part, but is also worth noting that their only signing, Neymar, has been one of the few positives in the past couple of matches.
In short, there isn’t really an excuse to be made. This is just the reality of the situation now. And I for one am completely OK with that. I’ve witnessed feats that I never believed could be accomplished, experienced highs that I could only dream of; support isn’t conditional after all. Nor does my faith in the team and club have to be rational.
So many Culés have been voicing their grievances over the past week (although it feels like many haven’t paused for breath in the past two or three years...) and that’s perfectly reasonable, but not for me. I’m an optimist by nature – you say that you can’t see a way past Real Madrid, I say that I can’t see a way we will lose.
Sure, the defense is suspect and the rest of the team hasn’t exactly been at their inspirational best either, but the same criticisms were levelled at the Blaugrana prior to the past two Clasicos. And if Barcelona are inconsistent, then what of Los Blancos, the team that nearly threw away a 3-0 aggregate lead against an injury-hit Borussia Dortmund?
Every cloud has a silver lining, you just have to know where to look.
The same principle applies to the Barcelona teamsheet for tomorrow’s match. Much has been made of the 24 man squad that has flown out to Valencia – especially given that five players are yet to receive medical clearance to return to action. Some media outlets have spun it as a desperate move from an under-fire Barça coach; obviously the concept of camaraderie doesn’t translate too well into the world of sensationalism.
Jugadors, seguidors, tots units fem força.
After a tough week, it’s important that the club put on a united front as they prepare to take on their eternal rivals, Real Madrid and save the season by securing the Copa del Rey trophy. Together, we have lived through the pain in the past week; wouldn’t it be nice if we could all celebrate some success come the full-time whistle tomorrow evening?
Whittling down the squad list to a potential starting XI isn’t exactly tough work, although Gerardo Martino will have to deal with some tough issues before kick-off. Isaac Cuenca, Jonathan dos Santos and unfortunately Gerard Piqué have all seemingly travelled in vain. While they will be a part of the squad and any celebrations, they are all effectively ruled out with Piqué needing a miracle to recover in time. Also in doubt are Marc Bartra and club captain Carles Puyol.
Bartra faces a late fitness test and is deemed to be the most likely to start out of our injured defensive trio, but I could see Puyol surprising us and usurping the young Catalan. After all, this is not only his final Clasico, but it’s probably the last chance he may have to lead this club to a trophy – and after a title-laden career, wouldn’t it be fitting if Puyol could retire, or at least leave on a high by holding the King’s Cup aloft in the Mestalla?
However, assuming the five injury doubts do not recover in time, expect them all, along with Ibrahim Afellay, to miss the final cut – leaving Gerardo Martino with 18 players from which to choose his starting XI.
Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal, and while it may be a little unrealistic to hope for a clean sheet, Pinto will at least be hoping for a good performance to keep Los Blancos at bay for as long as humanly possible. The good news? Cristiano Ronaldo is ruled out. The bad news? That still leaves us with Angel di Maria, Karim Benzema and the most expensive player of all time, Gareth Bale, to contend with.
But never fear, the Barcelona defense will surely be able to deal with the threat that Ancelotti’s side pose, right? I’m a huge Dani Alves fans, but he disappointed me in the last Clasico, and was pretty ineffectual against Atletico Madrid as well. Given the quality of Martin Montoya’s performance in Saturday’s loss against Granada, Dani needs to put on a good display just to retain his place in the starting XI; so which Brazilian will turn up tomorrow?
Will it be the precociously talented dual threat, capable of both shutting down every attack that comes close to his right-flank and scoring sensational goals at the opposite end of the field? Or will it be the predictable doppelganger that has again reared his ugly head in recent weeks? For Barça’s sake, we better hope it’s the former – and pray that the rest of the team is capable of carrying the extra workload if it’s the latter.
In an ideal world, Gerard Piqué would be recovered and ready to start tomorrow. But when has life ever been that simple in Catalunya? If the world was reasonable, either Marc Bartra or Carles Puyol would be ready to deputise, but the world isn’t reasonable. It’s unfair, and that’s why all three could miss out, leaving us with limited options.
Alex Song? Sergio Busquets? Adriano Correia? You have to choose one – and my choice would be the Brazilian full-back. He filled in relatively well a season or so ago, in this very fixture no less. Barcelona didn’t win, but they didn’t lose either – that’s a positive, right? As long as we aren’t robbing the midfield of Busi’s genius, I really couldn’t care less about the identity of our second central defender.
It’s not like they do very much anyway.
Jordi Alba will start at left-back, and has probably been our steadiest defensive performer since Piqué picked up his injury. Even before then perhaps, when he was excellent against Manchester City for instance. His pace is a God-send; who would have thought that a former winger would be our most responsible defender? Such is life at FC Barcelona I suppose. Whether it’s Gareth Bale or Angel di Maria manning the wing for Madrid, we need Alba at his disciplined best if we are aiming to win tomorrow.
As mentioned earlier, we need Sergio Busquets in midfield. There’s a reason why we sold Yaya Toure, and it’s because Sergio Busquets is that good at playing pivote. In fact, he’s the Lionel Messi of that position; his talent is unrivalled, his influence unparallel and his understanding, both of the system and of the game in general, is second to none. When Busquets plays well, Barcelona plays well. When Busquets doesn’t play in midfield, Barcelona loses to Granada.
At least that’s what happened on Saturday, and Busquets was a major contributing factor to that result. I mean come on, when have we ever used "Alex Song" and "dictated the tempo" in the same sentence? This is probably the first time anyone has ever attempted to pair the two, and even now, they’re in quotation marks. We all know that Real Madrid will adopt a high-line and press the ball in midfield tomorrow; Busquets has the ability to react to that pressure and in turn, influence the entire team to adapt accordingly.
And Busquets’ presence in midfield liberates Xavi to play his usual game – while many have been quick to claim that Xavi is on his last legs this season, it’s ironic that no-one seemed to notice that we lost the first match he didn’t play. That defeat obviously wasn’t ideal, but resting Xavi for the full 90 minutes was, and I hope to see this reflected in tomorrow’s match. As captain in Puyol’s absence, Xavi will be leading the team, look for his experience, determination and composure under pressure to calm the nerves of any anxious Blaugrana starters.
Now we get to the interesting part of the selection dilemma. After two goalless performances, does Martino switch back to the 4-3-3? I’ve seen a lot of support for that exact move, and I’ll pray to pretty much any deity listening so that this doesn’t come to fruition. We’ve played Real Madrid twice this season and won twice. But we’ve won twice using the system with four midfielders. A switch to 4-3-3 could work wonders in the second-half, but from the start? I think it’s just asking for trouble.
With a makeshift backline, we need all the support and control that we can get – if that means another match without Alexis Sánchez or Pedro Rodriguez then so be it. Honestly, what have they contributed in recent weeks anyway? Give me Cesc Fàbregas as Xavi’s partner tomorrow, preferably with a serving of Andrés Iniesta on the side.
If the community ratings form didn’t give it away at the weekend, Neymar was my choice for Man of the Match on Saturday. He worked harder than pretty much any other Barcelona player, displayed more determination and drive than pretty much any other Barça player, and probably came the closest to scoring an equaliser too. Even his worst moments – the petulant kick – were encouraging in their own way, as Neymar was ultimately driven to this fleeting moment of anger by disappointment. He wanted better in this match, and it showed.
I think he was a great signing, and would not change a single thing about this summer if it meant that we were left without the Brazilian. With Cristiano Ronaldo injured, some might think that spotlight will be very much focused on Lionel Messi tomorrow and it may turn out to be like that, but I’d keep an eye out for Neymar to make his mark.
Speaking of Lionel Messi, I don’t know what to say. For the first time, I’m lost for words. Well, maybe not. The past week has been blown completely out of proportion, both internally and externally. Fans are exaggerating with their "end of an era" epitaphs, much like the media are being a little too liberal with their hyperbole when referring to the diminutive Argentine. Write him off at your own peril anyway; so if you’ve bought into the whole "Messi decline" thing Real Madrid, don’t let me convince you otherwise.
Cristiano Ronaldo is injured. Cristiano Ronaldo cannot play the Clasico tomorrow. Cristiano Ronaldo might never play another Clasico again. Well, maybe I made that last one up, but the other two are absolutely true, and while every Culé wishes Cristiano a speedy recovery, we’re all a little glad that he’s watching this final from the sideline. Although, given that Angel di Maria and Karim Benzema were Madrid’s best performers in the last Clasico, it might not matter too much from Carlo Ancelotti’s perspective. If his gameplan is sound, then it won’t matter who is on the field, within reason anyway.
Interestingly, club captain Iker Casillas is preparing for his first El Clasico in what seems like an eternity; having made 34 previous appearances in this historic fixture, Casillas was suddenly out of favour at the Santiago Bernabeu and has yet to find his way back into favour, even after Ancelotti’s arrival. Diego Lopez is a great keeper, but this is definitely bad news for the Blaugrana; Casillas is still one of the very best in the world and perhaps unlike Pinto at the other end, he is capable of winning this game for his team.
If he fancies switches things up a little tomorrow, Ancelotti could opt to move Sergio Ramos back to right-back, and elect to start Pepe and Raphael Varane together in the centre of defense. However, it’s more likely that Dani Carvajal reprises his role at right-back, with Ramos, Pepe and Varane fighting it out for the two central berths. Given their reputations, it’s logical that Varane would lose out in this regard. Meanwhile, Fabio Coentrao will look to benefit from Marcelo’s injury by starting at left-back and making an impact the Clasico. Often used as a tactical wildcard by Jose Mourinho, Coentrao is no stranger to being thrown in at the deep-end.
With Ronaldo injured, Real Madrid have a decision to make in midfield. Do they keep their shape and start the usual suspects? Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Angel di Maria and...Isco? Asier Illarramendi? Could we see Pepe or Ramos back in central midfield?
Something tells me it will be none of the above; I think Alvaro Morata will start on the left, with Angel di Maria in a similar role to the previous Clasico while Karim Benzema leads the line. It’s a formidable line-up, but somehow even with a plethora of star names, the task at hand doesn’t quite seem anywhere near as daunting without Cristiano Ronaldo in the fold.
Real Madrid: LWWWLW
Real Madrid 3-4 FC Barcelona – 23rd March 2014 – La Liga
The last Clasico produced a match for the ages; it literally had everything. A red card, penalties and a number of lead changes with the Blaugrana emerging as victors courtesy of Lionel Messi’s hat-trick. He’s in decline after all.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Fàbregas, Neymar
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao; Alonso, Modric; Bale, di Maria, Morata; Benzema
I’m shamelessly going to predict a Barcelona win for this one. Despite recent form, I’d back our team against anyone – apart from Atletico Madrid. Thankfully, there will be no red stripes on the opposing kit tomorrow – so it’s a 2-1 for me.
- FC Barcelona News: 15 April 2014; Preparations for Cup Final in Full Swing, Barça Juvenil A Win UEFA Youth League
- La Liga: Granada CF 1-0 FC Barcelona: Player Ratings
- FC Barcelona News: 14 April 2014; Copa Del Rey Final Inches Closer, Juvenil A Prepare for Youth League Final
- FC Barcelona News: 13 April 2014; Barça Lose to Granada, Drop to Third Place in La Liga Standings
- Liga Done: FC Barcelona: Fin De Ciclo (2008-2014), Part III