FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are set to play the return leg of their Copa del Rey tie with both teams in somewhat underwhelming form, likely due to fixture congestion. After drawing the first leg 1-1, both clubs will be looking to book their ticket to the final before they meet again in La Liga, making this the second round in a three-match affair.
Fitness and form
Barça recently drew 0-0 against Lyon in the UEFA Champions League, and needed a superhuman Lionel Messi performance to beat Sevilla 4-2. Madrid, for their part, defeated Ajax 2-1 despite being outplayed and requiring a controversial VAR decision, before beating Levante 2-1 with the help of an even more shocking VAR decision.
Madrid have complained about not having an extra day to rest, but it remains to be seen whether they will be any less fresh than Barça. Messi, Luis Suárez, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Gerard Piqué make the core of an aging but still extremely talented team. Will they be up for it?
For the Catalans, Rafinha is out with a long term injury, but Jasper Cillessen and Arthur are back in training and there is perhaps a glimmer of hope they could return. Thomas Vermaelen will most likely miss out through injury, too, although he wouldn’t be used anyway, most probably. Samuel Umtiti came back against Sevilla after a long injury layoff, but it’s not likely that he’ll be used for two matches in a row.
Marcos Llorente and Isco are also coming back from injuries for Madrid.
Ernesto Valverde changed his formation against Sevilla to good effect, and he may be tempted to keep the 4-2-3-1 system in el clásico. On the other hand, he may continue with his standard 4-3-3.
Santiago Solari is likely to continue with a 4-3-3, making few changes from the team that drew the first leg. Keylor Navas is the starter for the cup matches in goal, with a back four likely to feature only one change - Sergio Reguilón could be drafted to replace Marcelo at left-back. Rounding out the back four would be Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, and Dani Carvajal. Casemiro would take the pivot position (especially if Llorente is not ready) with Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić alongside. Upfront, Karim Benzema is sure to be the main striker, and Vinícius seems essential for Solari on the left wing. Lucas Vázquez is the favorite to start on the right, with Gareth Bale an option off the bench. There’s also the option of Marco Asensio.
For Barça, it will probably still be Marc-André ter Stegen in goal with Cillessen not yet fully fit. Then, a familiar back four of Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, and Nélson Semedo. The latter has been preferred recently and could be relied upon to cover the quickness of Vinicius. Sergi Roberto could get the start instead of Semedo, however.
In midfield, Busquets and Rakitić are fundamental pieces for Valverde, with Suárez, Messi, and Ousmane Dembélé also sure to land a starting spot. That leaves one last place in the starting XI - who can it be?
Normally, that would be Arthur, but it’s likely he won’t be fit in time. After that, Valverde has a few options. He could opt to play 4-3-3 and start Arturo Vidal, as he did for 45 minutes against Sevilla. However, Vidal was not in his best form and Valverde may not rely on him. However, perhaps that early substitution makes him fresher than most and a good choice.
Philippe Coutinho could get a chance, possibly in that 4-2-3-1 formation which allows him to play on the wings alongside Dembélé. There’s also the option of Roberto in midfield, which was the case in the match against Lyon. Finally, Valverde could trust Carles Aleñá, who was impressive in a 12 minute cameo against Sevilla.
Malcom, who scored in the first leg, seems destined not to start, although he could play in that 4-2-3-1 instead of Coutinho. It’s hard to see him replacing any of Suárez, Messi, or Dembélé.
It’ll be interesting to see how each team adjusts from their earlier meeting. The fact that it was a draw means neither team had a serious flaw that they need to fully counteract. But the familiarity can result in surprises. Opponents know each other’s weaknesses and look for them. Things that come off normally may start to be anticipated and blocked.
Madrid probably have the advantage as they are playing at home and will be in a qualifying position from kick-off thanks to an away goal. Barcelona need to score at least one, but obviously, the more, the better. There’s also a chance for extra time which would make the next match quite interesting indeed.
If it’s 4-3-3 against 4-3-3, it’s a mirror image match on paper, but Barcelona change it a lot since Messi drifts from the right wing to play basically anywhere. That’s what makes him so dangerous, although Madrid can exploit the space he leaves behind if Barcelona’s right-sided midfielder doesn’t provide cover for the right-back.
Barcelona could go 4-2-3-1, and although that formation is similar to 4-3-3, it would put Messi in a free role in the middle and Dembélé on the right, giving Barcelona someone who will be tasked to track back on that flank. However, the Busquets-Rakitić double pivot could be outnumbered by Madrid’s midfield trio in the center of the park. Barcelona’s two wingers will have to retreat to make up the numbers, turning the team into a 4-4-2 in defense.
In defense, Solari’s men retreated into a 4-1-4-1 shape, but they can be beaten if they do not defend the wings properly.
Alba is one of the key creative outlets for Barça, which means Lucas (if selected) will be told to stay back as much as possible to prevent the left-back from sprinting past when Carvajal is occupied marking a forward. If Madrid can seal off that side, it will do them a world of good.
For Barcelona, they need to figure out the Messi question. Namely, how do they retain width if he plays on the right? Malcom played well in the first leg partially because he was afforded space by Vinícius. Bale doesn’t offer a lot of defensive support, usually, either. Valverde will surely start Messi, but he needs to have someone on the right wing willing to open up the attack.
That could mean a 4-2-3-1, to start Messi in the middle, or a 4-3-3 with a right-sided midfielder told to act at times like a right-winger when Messi vacates the space. The latter would make Roberto the favorite to start.
Madrid need to press Barça on kickoffs and make Ter Stegen hit it long, or have someone make a mistake and pounce. If the Catalans play through the press, los blancos have to hope their defensive players slow them down long enough for the team to settle back into its defensive shape. Meanwhile, Madrid will get their fair share of the ball, but they may get their best chances when they counter and use the speed of their wingers to create scoring opportunities.