After Champions League elimination last week, and with title hopes in La Liga seriously dented following the defeat at Granada, Barça’s best chance of finishing the season with a trophy comes tomorrow in the Copa del Rey Final at Mestalla against Real Madrid (Wednesday 9.30 pm). Neither team arrives to the game in the best condition with Barça struggling with defensive injuries and Madrid without Cristiano Ronaldo who scored the only goal of the game in the last Clásico cup final in 2011.
Tata Martino has named 24 players including the doubtful Marc Bartra, Gerard Piqué and Carlos Puyol and the injured Dos Santos and Cuenca for the trip to Valencia. Of all the first team squad players only injured keeper Victor Valdés has remained in Barcelona. Marc Bartra raised hopes that he can make it in time by training today with his team-mates though his participation tomorrow is still doubtful. Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol both trained apart, Piqué seems to have little chance of playing but Puyol promised to give everything to be able to start.
If none of the three are fit to play then Tata Martino will again need to play an emergency centre-back. Busquets was used at Granada with little success and his lack of pace will undoubtedly be exposed more by Madrid. The other option is Adriano who Tito Vilanova used at centre-back against Madrid in the 2-2 draw at Camp Nou last season. Adriano, however, lacks experience and his positioning wasn’t great in that game while his lack of height will put him at a disadvantage in aerial battles with Benzema. If we do end up needing to play an emergency centre-back, personally I’d still play Adriano as at least that allows Busquets to continue in midfield.
Most concerns may be about the defence but our crushed treble dreams have more to do with the failure to score in the last two games. Leo Messi’s come in for his share of the criticism and I admit I am at a loss to understand the causes for his drops in form. I don’t buy into the argument that he doesn’t care though there may be some truth that he is worried about getting injured again before the World Cup (check out Enrique Schoch’s informed article at Total Barça for more on Messi). Either way Messi is still vitally important to the team and hopefully tomorrow he’ll be in his preferred false-nine role. As wide attackers I’d like to see Alexis and Neymar though I’d also be happy if Pedro got a start. Fabregas seems to be suffering his traditional late-season loss of form and I’d prefer he didn’t start which would allow our classic Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield.
Besides the loss of Ronaldo, Madrid are also without Marcelo, Khedira, Arbeloa and Jesé. Coach Carlo Ancelotti has named 20 players for the game including youngsters Diego Llorente and Willian José. In today’s press conference Ancelotti claimed he is sure of ten starters, Casillas, Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Coentrao, Xabi Alonso, Modric, Di María, Bale and Benzema, and that the 11th place would be between Isco and Illarramendi. The Madrid coach knows that the Alonso-Modric-Di Maria midfield did little to protect their defence in the recent 3-4 win for Barça at the Bernabéu but when he played Alonso-Modric-Illarramendi with Di Maria further forward in Dortmund Madrid were overrun in the first 45 minutes and Ancelotti brought Isco on for Illarramendi at half time, switching Di Maria back.
While for much of the season we may dismiss the Copa del Rey as a lesser trophy in comparison to La Liga and the Champions League, there is no doubt now that tomorrow’s final is a massive game for Barça. There may be internal problems at the club and we may also be at the end of a cycle with important changes occurring this summer, but these players owe it to themselves to give their best tomorrow and hopefully earn an impressive victory that will give us all a lift after recent disappointments.
Real Madrid: Casillas, Diego López, Jesús, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Varane, Carvajal, Coentrão, Nacho, Llorente, Xabi Alonso, Illarramendi, Isco, Bale, Casemiro, Modric, Di María, Benzema, Morata, Willian José.
FC Barcelona: Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Bartra*, Piqué*, Puyol*, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Dos Santos*, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Cuenca*, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay. (*players without medical clearance)
Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Coentrao; Xabi Alonso, Modric, Di María; Bale, Benzema, Isco.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Bartra (or Adriano), Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Madrid 2 Barça 3.
Date: Wednesday 16 April 2014. Kick-off 9.30 pm local time.
Venue: Estadio de Mestalla (Valencia).