It may ‘only’ be the Copa del Rey, but tomorrow night’s semi-final second leg at Camp Nou between Barça and Real Madrid takes on a greater importance due to the delicate situation of both teams. There is not just a place in the final on May 18 at stake as both sides are looking for a boost in morale and improved performances in the run up to the crucial return matches in the Champions League last 16.
Barça’s defeat last week at Milan has activated many of the underlying doubts surrounding the team. Is playing two attacking full backs leaving us too exposed at the back? Should Andrés Iniesta be used in midfield? Is there a place for David Villa in the team? Can Alexis Sanchez overcome his drop in confidence? Is there over-dependency on Leo Messi and should he be rested more? And perhaps most importantly – can Tito Vilanova make the correct decisions when he’s following everything from 6000 km away?
If Barça lose tomorrow then the prospects of turning things around on March 12 when Milan come to Camp Nou will be affected. Having La Liga more or less in the bag will help to cushion the blow but defeat in the cup competitions would leave two long months with only league games to look forward to. The club and fans are used to a healthy dose of high-tension games during the spring months and if we only have the league to play for, especially as there doesn’t look like being a close race for the title, we are going to miss the adrenaline fix this year.
If the game could be key to Barça’s season, for Real Madrid it could be equally crucial. With a difficult trip to Old Trafford next week they will also be looking for confidence-lifting victory. Sixteen points in La Liga looks like too big a difference to recover which means our rivals will have a very complicated end to the season if they fall in both cup competitions.
José Mourinho has the doubt of including the out-of-form Di Maria or Kaká for tomorrow’s game while he will also have to decide on his best central defensive pairing with Raphael Varane, who played so well in the 1-1 draw in the first leg at the Bernabéu, threatening Pepe and Sergio Ramos for a place. There is also a good chance that Pepe will partner Varane with Ramos moved to right back and Arbeloa moving to the left. It seems likely that Madrid will try to maintain a high pressing game early on and Barça will need to be very concentrated not to make any stupid mistakes at the back.
Adriano has returned to training normally which means Barça have a total of 23 first-team players available for selection tomorrow. It seems certain that Pinto will continue as our Copa del Rey goalkeeper but I expect the outfield ten will be the same as in Milan. Obviously there is a good case to use Villa or Cristian Tello following their performances against Sevilla on Saturday. However, the fact that Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas all rested at the weekend indicates that they will all be restored to the team as the midfield three. That would leave the front three places for the untouchable Iniesta and Messi, with Pedro, who was also rested against Sevilla, returning to the right wing.
One always hopes for a fair game with as little influence from the referee as possible. However, Barça are not happy with the decision to name Alberto Undiano Mallenco to officiate tomorrow. This is the guy who allowed Madrid to get away with all sorts in the Copa del Rey final at Mestalla two years ago, and it is also a worrying fact that while Mourinho has only won three out of fifteen clásicos, Undiano was the man with the whistle for two of those three victories.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Madrid: Diego Lopez; Ramos, Varane, Pepe, Arbeloa; Khedira, Alonso; Ozil, Kaká, Ronaldo; Benzema.
Prediction: Barça 3 Madrid 1
Date: Tuesday 26 February 2013. Kick off: 9 pm local time.