Less than four weeks after serving up a Clasico classic, Barcelona and Real Madrid will meet again in the final of the Copa del Rey. Frequent meetings between the sides at the climax of the season have been common place in recent years as the two teams hovered up the trophies between them both at home and in Europe. But Atletico Madrid’s brilliant emergence as a major force this season now adds extra importance to a trophy that for both Barcelona and Real Madrid laid a distant third in their list of priorities at the start of the campaign.
That is especially true for Barcelona, who were dumped out of the Champions League at the earliest stage in seven seasons at the hands of Atletico this week. While they remain in the race of the Primera Division title, the pressure is firmly on the club as a whole, not least manager Gerardo Martino.
Despite winning both games against Real Madrid so far this term, Barcelona have looked on the verge of crisis throughout the season. From controversy and a lack of direction off the pitch to dissention with Martino’s tactics on it, all is not well. Many believe Martino’s exit is already a foregone conclusion. It is certainly unfair to pin the blame on the Argentine, who was thrust into the job on the eve of the season due to Tito Vilanova’s illness. However, some of his decisions have increasingly invited criticism.
This was especially true in Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat to Atletico. Barcelona had shown signs of rediscovering a sense of control and greater attacking fluidity in recent weeks, including in the 4-3 win at the Bernabeu, by having Cesc Fabregas in midfield and Andres Iniesta to the left of Lionel Messi in a front three. Yet in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie, Martino changed things up by playing Fabregas as a false nine and Messi on the right. He then compounded the problem by taking off Iniesta, such a key player and in such fine form in recent weeks, with 18 minutes remaining as Barcelona chased n equalizer. It is now imperative that Martino gets his selection right at the Mestalla.
His opposite number, Carlo Ancelotti, might also have some question marks over his selection. Madrid’s performances improved dramatically around the turn of the year when he switched to a 4-3-3- formation. His BBC (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) front line was set free in front of a positive midfield trio of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric and Angel di Maria. The attacking quality in the side, combined with the greater control they are now able to assert compared with last season, means they can now overwhelm the vast majority of teams they come up against.
But against Barcelona last month, despite being on top for periods, Madrid never looked to have a firm grip of the game and lost a lead to succumb to what could yet prove to be a pivotal defeat for their title hopes. The lack of a physical holding midfielder means that quality opposition will always have chances to get at a defense that can make careless decisions as they did in coming desperately close to throwing away a 3-0 lead in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie with Borussia Dortmund.
Ancelotti may be forced into a somewhat more cautious setup, with a hamstring injury set to rule out Cristiano Ronaldo. Still, there will be an undoubted temptation to take advantage of a Barcelona back line that looked all over the place at times against Atletico and will again be missing the calming presences of Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes.