Real Madrid have every reason to relish Wednesday’s Copa del Rey final at the Mestalla. Most obviously there is a chance to lift the first major silverware of the season, but perhaps more of an incentive is to plunge their greatest rivals into an even deeper crisis.
Just a week ago, Barcelona, despite a far from harmonious season either on or especially off the pitch, were still very much in the running for a treble last won in Pep Guardiola’s glorious first season in charge. They now go into the cup final at Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium knowing that it is likely to be their only opportunity to salvage something from the rubble of a campaign to forget.
Barcelona were outfought and outthought to lose 1-0 to Atletico Madrid and crash out of the Champions League before a defeat by the same scoreline at Granada on Saturday left them four points off the top of La Liga with five matches remaining. It is not an insurmountable deficit, especially with Barcelona hosting leaders Atletico on the final day of the season. But in their current state you wouldn’t want to have too much wagered on it happening.
A paper with close ties to Barcelona, Sport, has already decided the club’s fate and who will pay the price with their headline after the Granada defeat reading “Goodbye Liga, Goodbye Tata, Goodbye…”
While talk of this being the final death knell for Barcelona’s great era of tiki-taka success may still be premature, the departure of coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino at the end of the season is an ever-increasing inevitability. In some ways he never had a chance. Flung in right before the season started, the Argentine was handed a squad that needed fresh blood but was instead stripped of a player who could have led the next generation of talent, Thiago Alcantara.
The failure to sign a top class central defender has all too predictably proved a terrible oversight. Against Real Madrid, that weakness will be exposed further by the absence through injury of their only natural central defender in his peak, Gerard Pique.
But Martino has also not helped himself. While edging away from the devotion to tiki-taka, it is not clear what exactly he is aiming to move to. The lack of direction off the pitch is mirrored by that on it. The decision to move Lionel Messi out of the center against Atletico proved unwise as did the selection of Sergio Busquets in the center of defense to be replaced by Alex Song in midfield for the trip to Granada.
Martino appeared to have found a winning strategy for the big games by helping to maximize Barcelona’s control of the game, achieved by having Cesc Fabregas in midfield and Andres Iniesta nominally on the left of a front three. It was that system that helped Barcelona to win 4-3 in a thrilling encounter the last time they met Real Madrid just over three weeks ago.
At that point there was much conjecture about the future of Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti. In contrast to his opposite number, things suddenly look far rosier for the Italian. Through to the Champions League semifinals, albeit only just, and now second in La Liga, a treble is still very much in the offing.
Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, who will again miss out on Wednesday, Madrid have a frightening array of attacking options. Yet issues still remain. The loss to Barcelona and the 2-0 defeat in Dortmund that so nearly cost them a chance at “La Decima” this season, highlighted the weakness they still have without the ball.
Lacking Sami Khedira, who is now thankfully nearing a return after a long absence, Madrid lack a natural defensive midfielder. With so many players committed to attacking, and the wide forwards often not tracking back, Ancelotti could be forgiven for covering his eyes when the opposition is breaking against his side. That central defenders Pepe and Sergio Ramos have a tendency to make rash decision does not help matters. That vulnerability led to a defeat against Barcelona last time out, despite large spells when they were on top. The same could certainly occur on Wednesday.
Yet, without Ronaldo, Madrid should have a greater solidity. Asier Illarramendi could come into the midfield, with the in-form Angel di Maria moving up to the right flank. And, even lacking the Portuguese’s brilliance, Madrid’s front line have reason to relish going up against a hugely suspect Barcelona defense, which now lacks the assured presence of Victor Valdes behind them. Real Madrid could well avenge their league loss, lift the Copa del Rey and leave smiling at the wreckage in which they have left their fiercest foes.
Prediction: Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
Barcelona: Martino has doubts over all three of his natural central defenders. Pique is expected to miss out and Carles Puyol’s participation from the start is also unlikely, although Marc Bartra is set to return. Jose Manuel Pinto will continue to deputize of the injured Valdes.
Real Madrid: Ancelotti has ruled Ronaldo out of the contest, while Marcelo will also miss out. Khedira is back in training, but the Copa del Rey final will come too soon for his return.