Out of the Champions League and stumbling in Spain, Barcelona faces Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final in likely its best chance to win some silverware this season.
Madrid will be without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, while Barcelona arrives with its defence in tatters and Lionel Messi questioned for his recent dip in form.
Barcelona will be aiming to add to its record 26 cup titles. Madrid is third on the all-time list, behind Athletic Bilbao, with 18.
For many Real Madrid fans, Cristiano Ronaldo’s most memorable goal was his extra-time header at Mestalla Stadium to edge Barcelona 1-0 in the 2011 Copa del Rey final.
Madrid now returns to the same ground in a rematch but must do so without its Ballon d’Or winner.
Ronaldo has missed Madrid’s last three games with a leg muscle injury on top of an already sore left knee. That means the weight of Madrid’s attack falls on Gareth Bale, the Wales winger Madrid broke its own spending record on last year.
“We will be missing a player with incredible quality,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “But the team can play well. It will motivate the rest.”
It was only three weeks ago when Lionel Messi left the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium with a hat trick that led Barcelona to a 4-3 victory, giving the Argentine a “clasico” record with 21 career goals against Real Madrid.
Barcelona’s elimination in the Champions League and its loss in the Spanish league at Granada has put Messi under unprecedented pressure after appearing lethargic.
“If there is one player we can’t doubt, it’s Messi,” Barcelona captain Carles Puyol said. “He has accustomed us to seeing him score three goals, so when he doesn’t score we are surprised.”
Casillas vs Pinto
The Copa del Rey final is special for all its players, but perhaps even more so for the two goalkeepers.
After losing his starting job in the Spanish league to Diego Lopez, Iker Casillas has responded by helping Real Madrid reach the Champions League semifinals and has not conceded a goal in the Copa del Rey through all eight matches.
“The team has played a great Copa del Rey and we want to put the cherry on top tomorrow,” Casillas said. “I don’t put much in Barcelona’s last week and those two losses. Anything can happen.”
Jose Pinto has played in Barcelona’s net in three Copa del Rey finals, winning two.
Barcelona’s defence has been gutted by injuries and will likely be without centrebacks Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra and Carles Puyol.
That will leave Javier Mascherano as its only centreback to keep Bale, Karim Benzema, and Angel di Maria in check.
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino’s move to shift Sergio Busquets into defence and play Alex Song in midfield backfired in the loss at Granada, so he may opt to play fullback Adriano alongside Mascherano.
“It doesn’t create insecurity. The people we have are able to play in defence and we have 200 percent confidence in them,” Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. “If you attack well, you defend well, and you defend well if everyone is involved.”
Martino’s last stand
Winning the Copa del Rey may be Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino’s last chance to save his job.
The Barcelona-based sports papers have been calling for his firing after consecutive games without a goal for the first time since 2008.