Barcelona and Real Madrid go head-to-head for the fifth time this season on Tuesday with not only a place in the Copa del Rey final on the line, but also potentially serious ramifications for both teams’ seasons as a whole.
Certainly it is a crucial encounter for Real Madrid. Raphael Varane’s late goal at the Bernabeu four weeks ago secured a 1-1 draw in the first leg, the same score as the result in their home leg against Manchester United in the last-16 of the Champions League.
The return match in both competitions come in the space of a week of each other and will play a huge part in defining Madrid’s season and perhaps the reign of manager Jose Mourinho.
Madrid are a massive 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and, with any chance of retaining their title long since gone, the success of their season is now purely down to cup competitions. Of course, if they can achieve their goals while also denting Barcelona’s hopes, then all the better.
After appearing to merely trundle along in the league since before the New Year, Mourinho says he's relishing the quick-fire series of crunch matches, which also includes another meeting with Barcelona, in La Liga, on Saturday.
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"They are matches that we all like and that everyone wants to play,” he said in a post on Real Madrid’s official website. “I like them. I prefer matches of this magnitude to others where there is nothing at stake. So we are ready to play. We’re looking forward to tomorrow’s match, the one on Saturday and the one against Manchester United.”
In contrast to Madrid’s turbulent season, both on and off the pitch, everything looked to be running smoothly for Barcelona. But their performances have dropped off in recent weeks and they have now failed to keep a clean sheet in 11 consecutive games.
While they were able to come from behind to beat Sevilla 2-1 at the weekend, Barcelona’s recent dip in form was exposed with a 2-0 first leg defeat to Milan in their Champions League round-of-16 tie last week.
Jordi Roura continues to stand in for coach Tito Vilanova, who is still in New York receiving cancer treatment. And the Barcelona assistant coach has said that much work has been going into trying to prevent the consistent concession of goals ahead of a crucial phase in their campaign.
“We’ve been looking at the goals we’ve let in over recent games and trying to correct that for the upcoming matches,” he said, according to Barcelona’s official website. “Those goals are everyone’s responsibility.”
Barcelona will have their full squad fit and available, while Real Madrid will only be without Iker Casillas.
D: Alves, Puyol, Pique, Alba
M: Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas
F: Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Real Madrid (probable)
D: Ramos, Varane, Pepe, Coentrao
M: Khedira, Alonso
Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo
Prediction: Both sides have question marks hanging over them heading into this finely-poised second leg. Barcelona continue to give up careless goals, which, as Roura suggests, is an indictment of the team as a whole rather than just the defense. While a goalless draw would see Barcelona make the final, it is hard to envisage that transpiring.
Barcelona have also looked worryingly subdued in attack in recent games. The especially poor form of Alexis Sanchez as well as the struggles in front of goal of Pedro has seen too heavy a reliance on Lionel Messi. That has allowed defenses to squeeze the space around the Argentinian forward and limited his threat. The goal-scoring return from a bout of kidney stones of David Villa at the weekend was a promising sign and he must surely be given a more important role in the side.
However, on Tuesday, where the onus is on Madrid to attack, Vilanova may well opt to essentially field an extra midfielder in Cesc Fabregas in preference to the more dynamic attacking threat of Villa.
Madrid also have some issues in attack, where Mourinho doesn’t appear to be satisfied with either Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain. Fortunately Cristiano Ronaldo continues to be prolific in front of goal and few would bet against him continuing his record of scoring on his last five visits to Camp Nou.
At the back, Madrid have looked strong in recent weeks, helped by the blossoming young French defender Raphael Varane who was outstanding in the second leg.
It is a match and tie that promises to go all the way to the wire. Madrid are likely to push up and, like the first leg, could get joy from pressuring in advanced areas. But, as they did in the second half at the Bernabeu, Barcelona could well find space on the break and if they take their chances they should just secure progress to the final.
Barcelona 2-1 Real Madrid
Barcelona are 8/11 to win the game with both Paddy Power and Bet 365, with a draw priced at 3/1 with the former and 10/3 with the latter. Real Madrid are 7/2 to get the win with Paddy Power and 15/4 with Bet 365.
Where to watch: The Copa del Rey semifinal second leg will kick-off from Camp Nou at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by beIN Sport. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here and here.