Tonight, Real Madrid travel to the Camp Nou to decide the Copa del Rey semi-final, after a hard-fought 1-1 in the first leg at the Bernabeu. In that first leg, a depleted Real Madrid defense, spurred on by a masterclass and tying goal from 19-year-old phenomenon Raphael Varane, managed to hold Barça at bay in a thrilling match. Both sides had plenty of missed chances, but in the end Madridistas celebrated the draw, while cules were a bit disappointed not to seize a lead in the tie while their opponents were vulnerable. Nonetheless, Barcelona might be said to have a slight edge going into this match, having home field advantage and an away goal – but then again, advantages mean nothing in a Clásico, and Barça has not kept a clean sheet for 11 games in a row.
In addition to the traditional intensely competitive spirit with which these titans approach each other, both sides will have much to prove. Barcelona are coming off a run of mediocre form and will undoubtedly have that shock defeat to Milan still weighing on their minds, but the team will hope to continue the energetic resurgence displayed in the second half against Sevilla. In that match, Barça lacked urgency in the first half, but, spurred on by some key changes from Jordi Roura, rallied with energetic, fluid attacking to grab the win. Should that same urgency be displayed from the first minute against Real Madrid, Barcelona could walk away with a huge win – and more importantly, an end to a February slump and boost of confidence on the way to a dramatic comeback on March 12th.
Madrid, on the other hand, are gearing up for the eight days that may decide their entire season. Sixteen points behind in the league, the merengues will come out fighting tooth and nail, desperate for a chance to humble the league leaders and earn themselves a trophy. Moreover, having already lost the league, they are likely to rest many of their starters for Saturday’s Clásico, while Barcelona will be less inclined to do so, not wanting to risk dropping their lead over Atlético. Finally, a good performance in tonight’s Clásico will be viewed as essential for Madrid if they are to travel to Old Trafford in good form and keep hopes of “La Decima” alive. For both sides, then, this match could decide much more than a trip to the Copa del Rey final.
Jordi Roura should have almost the full squad available. Adriano is recovering from a hamstring injury and has not received an official medical green light, but trained with the group yesterday. Cesc and Puyol were left out of the squad Saturday to rest, while Alba, Pedro, Busquets, and Xavi all started on the bench, with the latter two coming in for the last twenty minutes to close up the game.
Predicted Starting XI: Pinto; Alves – Piqué – Puyol – Alba; Xavi – Busquets – Iniesta; Pedro – Messi – Villa
Full squad: All 23 players are available for this game.
Like Roura, Jose Mourinho rested key players over the weekend. Benzema, Ramos and Xabi Alonso rested this weekend, while Coentrão, Khedira, Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo all started on the bench – though all but Coentrão had to come on in the 57th minute to turn the game around for Madrid and snatch the win.
Predicted Starting XI: Diego López; Arbeloa – Ramos – Pepe – Coentrão; Alonso – Khedira; Ronaldo – Ozil – Di María; Benzema
Full squad: TBA
Jose Mourinho’s lineup is likely to be the same as always for big games, though he has a few key decisions to make. Benzema usually starts Clásicos, but Higuaín has been in slightly better form of late; and should Varane’s incredible performance in the first leg earn him a start over either Ramos or Pepe? Also, there is the possibility Mourinho might bench Di Maria in favor of Modric or Essien, choosing a more defensive 4-3-3 rather than his traditional 4-2-3-1, but since a high-scoring draw would allow Madrid to advance, that seems unlikely.
For Roura, there are two key areas of the lineup in which decisions must be made: wingers and fullbacks. Starting Fabregas in the middle with Iniesta on the left rather than a true winger was extremely effective in the fall and proved itself to be Barça’s best formation – but matches against Madrid, Valencia, and Milan have called its reliability into question. In the first leg, Essien and Madrid’s right were their weakest point, but they were not tested at all, as Iniesta and Fabregas clogged up the middle and Jordi Alba was pinned back by Madrid attackers and could not risk getting forward as much. After impressive performances against Sevilla, both David Villa and Cristian Tello may have made cases to start on the left opposite Pedro, though the youngster would probably best be left as an impact sub.
In the case of fullbacks, Alves and Alba have both performed excellently this season, and have earned their first choice spots. However, despite their offensive contributions, both are somewhat unreliable defensively, and many of Barcelona’s conceded goals in the past months have come from fullback errors. This is not merely because they get forward and are caught out on counters, as they both have incredible pace and stamina with which to cover their flanks. Rather, the goals come from simple lapses in positioning and marking, failure to close down wide threats – things a more naturally defensive player like Montoya or Puyol might be better suited to cope with. Puyol might be the most prudent choice, having started as a fullback in Clásicos before and capable of nullifying Ronaldo – but with the Camp Nou screaming for goals, it is unlikely Roura will bench either of the speedy diminutive wingers we call our fullbacks.
One thing can be sure: regardless of which 22 players take the field tonight, it should be an incredibly exciting game.