Barça travel to San Sebastian tomorrow for the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Real Sociedad. The 2-0 lead from the first game at Camp Nou last week gives Barça a healthy advantage but Tata Martino is taking no risks and given the importance of the tie the Argentinian coach has named all 25 first team players including the injured Johnathan dos Santos for the trip. Carles Puyol and Neymar Jr both trained with the group this evening and the two could be in contention for a place on the bench.
The task in hand may seem reasonable simple but we would do well to remember that Barça have failed to win after going in front in the last three visits to Anoeta since La Real returned to the Primera División in 2010. In the 2010/11 season Thiago Alcántara fired Barça ahead before Diego Ifran and Xabi Prieto scored as Real came back to win 2-1. The following season Xavi and Cesc Fabregas gave Barça an early 0-2 lead but Real again hit back to earn a 2-2 draw thanks to second half goals from Imanol Agirretxe and Antoine Griezmann. The last meeting between the teams at Anoeta was in January 2013 when goals from Messi and Pedro again gave Barça a 0-2 advantage only for Chory Castro, Javier Mascherano in his own goal and Agirretxe to turn things round in a 3-2 win for the Basques and end Barça’s unbeaten record in La Liga.
Another bad memory which should help to avert complacency is the semi-final elimination to Getafe in 2007 when Barça let a 5-2 first leg lead slip to lose 6-5 on aggregate. Barça cannot afford to miss the opportunity of a probable final against Real Madrid and Martino seems likely to put out a strong team tomorrow. It is a complicated job for the Barça coach with a league match against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday followed by next Tuesday’s return to the Champions League at Manchester City. It is a crucial week with three titles in play where any mistakes could prove very costly. Barça’s recent form may not provoke too much optimism but with the pressure now building it is time for the players to react.
It seems sure that Pinto will return in goal for the Copa while Dani Alves, Mascherano and Jordi Alba should all return to a defence which will probably be completed by Gerard Piqué. Busquets will be back in midfield and Martino may decide to rest Xavi which could see Fabregas and Iniesta complete the trio. Alexis, Pedro and Messi look likely to continue in attack though Cristian Tello could be used in order to rest one of the three.
Real could do no better than a 0-0 home draw with Levante at the weekend and they now haven’t scored in their last four matches: let’s hope they haven’t been saving all their goals for tomorrow. Another more positive record for the Basques is that they have only lost once (0-1 in the Champions League to Bayer Leverkusen on December 10) in their last 14 games at Anoeta. The tie is heavily in Barça’s favour but if Real score first tomorrow things could get complicated. However, an away goal, which count double if the aggregate score is tied, should be enough to take the wind out of the Basques’ sails. I’m confident we’ll score at least once and that should be enough to earn our place in the final on April 19.
Barça’s 25-man squad list: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Dos Santos, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay, Cuenca.
Real Sociedad: Zubikarai; Zaldua, Mikel, Ansotegi, José Ángel; Bergara, Gaztañaga, Prieto; Griezmann, Agirretxe, Vela.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Fábregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Prediction: Real Sociedad 1 Barça 1
Date: Wednesday 12 February 2014. Kick-off 10 pm local time.