Following the shock of Saturday’s 2-3 defeat at home to Valencia, Barça return to action tomorrow with the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou (Wednesday 10 pm). Despite the ongoing battle for La Liga and the return to the Champions League in two weeks’ time, Tata Martino is treating the cup with total seriousness and the coach has named all 22 available first-team players for the game including Isaac Cuenca who appears in a match squad for the first time since 2012.
The season is arriving to a critical point where poor results over the next five or six weeks could see Barça with little to play for in the final weeks of the season. With the instability of an unelected president and an extremely important referendum on the future of Camp Nou coming up in April, the success or failure of the team on the pitch could go a long way to deciding the future of the club. At the moment we still have the possibility of winning the treble and if we are still in the race for all three titles at the start of April it will go a long way to reaffirming Bartomeu’s position as well as making a ‘yes’ vote much more likely in the referendum.
The first challenge is Real Sociedad who we beat 4-1 with one of our best performances of the season back in September. For tomorrow’s game Real’s coach Jagoba Arrasate has a doubt over Markel Bergara with physical problems so it’s likely that 22-year-old Jon Gaztañaga will continue in midfield. Real are in 6th place in La Liga and fighting for a place in Europe so Arrasate could also make two or three rotations with players such as Mikel González or Haris Seferoric coming into the team. The danger from Real is likely to come from the second line of attack from Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann who has scored 14 league goals already this season. Sergio Canales, signed for €3.5 million from Valencia on Monday, has entered Arrasate’s list for the game but seems unlikely to start.
Incredibly, this is Real’s first semi-final since 1988. In their last appearance they beat Real Madrid 1-0 at home with a goal from José Maria Bakero in the first leg before a famous 0-4 second leg win at the Bernabéu with two more goals from Bakero and another from Txiki Begiristain. That year they lost to Barça in the final with José Ramón Alexanko scoring the only goal of the game. The last time the teams met in the cup was in the quarter-finals of the 1989/90 season. on that occasion Barça went through 4-3 on aggregate and went on to beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the final. In total Real and Barça have met ten times in the cup with Barça getting the better of eight ties and the Basques winning just two.
Barça will be looking for a healthy victory tomorrow both to blot out the negative effects of Saturday’s defeat and also to provide a cushion for next Wednesday’s second leg at Anoeta which would allow more players to be rested. Martino seems sure to put out a strong team with few changes though Pinto will return in goal while there is a good case for Bartra to come into the defence. The other most likely incorporation to the team is Andrés Iniesta which would see a rest for either Xavi or Cesc Fabregas. Adriano, Alex Song and Tello could also be in line for a start but it seems more likely they will start on the bench with Martino preferring to continue with Alves, Alba, Busquets, Pedro, Alexis and of course Leo Messi.
Messi came in for a fair bit of criticism for his performance against Valencia and it is true that the Argentinian did not have his best game. However, in his defence it is important to note that he never shirks responsibility. Yes, his dribbles all came to nothing in the second half on Saturday but at least he kept insisting. Some might see this as a negative point but when we are losing and the crowd is losing belief it is vital that we have players willing to take on opponents even when it risks hearing the Camp Nou groan if it doesn’t come off. One of our biggest problems on Saturday was that too many players seemed stunned into inaction after Valencia’s third goal. Messi wasn’t one of them. He’s saved us plenty of times in the past with his brilliance and he’ll do it plenty of times again in the future.
Barça: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Tello, Cuenca, Afellay.
Real Sociedad: Bravo, Zubikarai, Carlos Martínez, Zaldua, Mikel, Ansotegi, Iñigo, José Ángel, Ros, Pardo, Elustondo, Gaztañaga, Zurutuza, Xabi Prieto, Canales, Seferovic, Vela, Griezmann.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Real Sociedad: Zubikarai; Carlos Martínez, Mikel, Íñigo Martínez, José Ángel; Gaztañaga, Pardo; Xabi Prieto, Griezmann, Seferovic; Vela.
Prediction: Barça 4 Real Sociedad 0
Date: Wednesday 5 February 2014. Kick-off 10 pm local time.