FC Barcelona prepare to take on Real Madrid at Camp Nou for the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal, in what is the first of a series of three clásicos to be played in quick succession.
Fitness and form
Real Madrid lost their earlier meeting this season 5-1, and that without Lionel Messi. But fortunes have changed in the interim. Going by form perception alone, Madrid have gained an upper hand at just the right time. They’ve won 5 in a row and have scored 16 goals during those matches. Karim Benzema is in sparkling form, having started the season just the opposite.
Meanwhile, Barcelona come with a couple of important injury doubts. Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembélé were both in a race for fitness to play, and in the end, only Messi made the squad list. How limited will he be by his respective injury woes? On the other hand, we are not too far removed from when Barça played an outstanding match in a 6-1 victory over Sevilla. But has the team spent too much energy lately?
Jasper Cillessen would normally start this game, as he does for all cup games, but he is definitely out through injury. However, this, if anything, could benefit Barcelona. As good as he is, simply put, Marc-André Ter Stegen is better.
Meanwhile, Samuel Umtiti is still injured. He’s a big miss as he has been a starter for Barcelona prior, but Clément Lenglet should deputize ably. Also, Rafinha, who started the last clásico, is out.
Jesús Vallejo will miss out for Real Madrid due to a hamstring injury, and so will Luca Zidane, but other than that, they have a clean bill of health. Neither is a first-team regular.
Ernesto Valverde is likely to retain his 4-3-3 system, with most of the names filled in almost automatically. At center-back, Barça will go with Lenglet and Gerard Piqué, who should be healed from a head injury he suffered over the weekend. Jordi Alba is undisputed at left-back. At right-back, Valverde has a question of whether to go with Nélson Semedo or Sergi Roberto. Valverde subbed Semedo off at halftime against Valencia; was that a sign that he much preferred Roberto, or that he was resting Semedo ahead of starting this match? My intuition tells me that it’s the former, and Valverde will persist with Roberto as the #1 right-back. That is, unless Roberto deputizes for Messi at right-wing.
In midfield, I suspect Valverde will go with Sergio Busquets as the pivot and Ivan Rakitić and Arthur ahead of him. Arturo Vidal has an argument to start, as well.
Upfront, we will see Luis Suárez flanked by Lionel Messi (if fit) and probably Phillppe Coutinho, with Dembélé not yet in full fitness. If Messi is not up for it either, it will get interesting. Would we see Malcom take part? Or perhaps Roberto upfront with Semedo at fullback? Will Valverde give Carles Aleñá, who was impressive against Valencia, his clásico debut? Kevin-Prince Boateng? (Now that would be something.)
For Real Madrid, Keylor Navas has returned from a small injury and was on the bench in their 3-0 triumph over Deportivo Alavés. He tends to play cup games, so he is likely to be preferred over Thibaut Courtois.
A familiar back four of Dani Carvajal, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, and Marcelo are likely to start. The biggest argument is whether to start Sergio Reguilón at left-back over Marcelo. The youngster has been impressive in Marcelo’s absence, but will Solari really bench a legend like the Brazilian? Meanwhile, a midfield three of Luka Modrić, Casemiro and Toni Kroos could be named, although Marcos Llorente could replace Casemiro in that XI. There’s an argument too, for Dani Ceballos, but it seems unlikely Isco will get any time.
Upfront, Benzema will surely start, although who partners him is perhaps less clear. Vincius and Gareth Bale could be the favorites, but surely Lucas Vázquez and Marco Asensio will have something to say about that.
In their earlier meeting, Madrid left their flanks almost ludicrously open, with Nacho preferred at right-back and struggling to contain Jordi Alba. Carvajal should fix that to a large extent, as he’s a massive upgrade at right-back over Nacho, who is a utility player and primarily a centerback.
Madrid got their best spell playing with a back 3 in the previous meeting, but I suspect Solari will name his usual 4-3-3 system. Barça have struggled with crosses to the back post and surely los blancos will be looking to get the ball to either a winger or fullback and aim for either Benzema or, particularly, a late runner coming into the box as they are marked by Roberto or Alba.
Marcelo, should he start, is still a dangerman for Madrid, being unusually involved in the team’s build-up and chance creation for a left-back. The same could be said for Alba, so it could turn into a sort of mirror match, tactically. Because of Marcelo’s threat, as well as that of Vinicius, there is an argument for starting Semedo, who is quicker and a more natural defender than Roberto. However, Roberto tends to play well in these sorts of games, and he could pose more of a problem for Madrid on the attacking side, in his combinations with Messi, particularly if Marcelo is once again caught upfield.
Madrid almost have the same choice to make - the attack-minded Marcelo or the more defensively sound Reguilón. What happens if Barcelona pick Semedo to defend Marcelo, but the Brazilian doesn’t start? Well, Semedo is still useful anyway, and he might be a better matchup for Vinicius than Roberto would be. But what if Reguilón starts, do you want Roberto to also start, as he won’t have as much of a problem defending him? You could stay up all night thinking about the permutations here.
In any case, Rakitić will have to cover the right side as Messi (if he starts) will not be asked to defend that area. On the other side, Madrid will have to help out Carvajal when Alba surges. In the earlier meeting, Nacho was not just not able to cope with Alba’s pace, but was also numerically overwhelmed by Alba and Coutinho. Bale didn’t help him out, and neither did the midfield. Having a player who is a better fullback at right-back surely will help Madrid, but on the other hand, that alone won’t be enough if the rest of the team doesn’t help him cover overloads on that flank. Is Bale up to the task, or does that call for someone like Lucas?
Both teams will need to have brave fullbacks to advance into attacking positions and force numerical advantages, but that could leave the centerbacks in vulnerable positions.
Of course, if Messi does not feature, it changes both Barcelona’s approach and Madrid’s response. Someone like Aleñá or Malcom or Roberto may be asked to defend more than Messi does, but Barça will lose a lot of attacking threat. It also changes how Madrid’s midfield behaves. as their defensive midfielder will be less preoccupied with marking the space Messi drifts into in the center. While it’s a net negative obviously, Messi not starting may provide some additional cover for that right flank, but then again, Madrid’s players will be more confident springing into attacks knowing Messi won’t be lurking.
There’s always the option for Valverde to switch formations, should he be unable to play with Messi and use someone like Arturo Vidal as an extra midfielder. The fact that Messi’s participation from the start is a genuine question gives Valverde a bit of an element of surprise, if nothing else, tactically. But clearly, not having Messi is a huge problem. Albeit, one that Barcelona overcame in glorious fashion in their previous meeting with Madrid, winning 5-1.
If history is our guide, Valverde will stick with the 4-3-3 without Messi and choose a right-winger who can help out defensively. Last time, it was Rafinha. Perhaps now, Roberto is the favorite?