Spanish football fans are in for a treat over the next few weeks with no fewer than three Clasico meetings in the next 25 days. The two sides face off in a Copa del Rey Semi-Final first before a league meeting at the Bernabeu just three days after the 2nd Leg. The three matches will have a huge impact on who claims Spain’s two major trophies this term.
Barcelona are the favourites to win both competitions but it is Real Madrid who take greater momentum into this decisive period in the season, which will also see both sides in Champions League last 16 action while Los Blancos have a Madrid derby to squeeze in too next weekend. They will be desperate for revenge having lost 5-1 at Camp Nou in the first Clasico of the season back in October.
Copa del Rey Semi-Final first Up
— Football Transfers⚽️ (@Transfers) February 2, 2019
The Copa del Rey Quarter-Final action last week was packed with incident and drama and concluded with the Semi-Final draw which paired Barcelona and Real Madrid together. The other Semi-Final sees Real Betis take on Valencia with the Seville club hoping to make it to a Final, which will be played in their stadium. Therefore a competition that has been widely criticised for lacking excitement in recent years, will this season feature two intriguing Semi-Finals.
Naturally, the Clasico will get most of the attention and Barcelona host Real Madrid in the 1st Leg this Wednesday. Real head into the game having won 5 straight matches in all competitions and having found another gear. The likes of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric have really hit form and they are a team that in recent seasons has tended to find their best football from February onwards, a major factor in their Champions League wins of recent years.
Hopes of a Real Madrid victory are also aided by Barcelona’s injury problems with Ousmane Dembele sidelined and Leo Messi rated doubtful for the 1st Leg. Messi dug his team out of another hole at the weekend as Barca came from behind to draw 2-2 with Valencia but they have become really dependent on their talisman again.
Real looking for a repeat of the 2014 Final
This will be the first Copa del Rey Clasico since the 2014 Final, one of the more memorable meetings in recent years, certainly from a Real Madrid perspective. Gerardo Martino sent his Barca team out that day with Cesc Fabregas operating as a false nine but it was centre-back Marc Bartra who scored his team’s only goal, equalising Angel Di Maria’s earlier strike for Real Madrid.
However the stage was set for a fine solo goal from Gareth Bale to seal the win at the Mestalla, perhaps still the standout contribution of his Real Madrid career. The victory was followed up by the first of four Champions League wins in five years a month later as Barca ended that season trophyless besides the Supercopa.
However the Copa del Rey is a competition Barcelona have completely dominated since. They’ve won all of the subsequent Finals and are targeting a record-breaking 5th straight Copa del Rey this season. Clearly this Semi-Final against their eternal rivals is likely to be the biggest obstacle to their hopes of that.
Solari hoping to Prove a Point
— Cleansheet (@Cleansheet) January 6, 2019
Santi Solari may have a contract at Real Madrid that runs until the summer of 2021 but few expect him to be in charge at the beginning of next season. In some respects you have to sympathise with the Argentine. He boasts a 78% win ratio in all competitions since taking over as Real coach, pretty good going by anyone’s standards yet still finds himself in the position of fighting for any kind of long-term future.
His best shot at extending his stay beyond the summer may be winning the Champions League, something Real Madrid have managed in each of the last three years, but that is something that is by no means the norm and will be much harder without Cristiano Ronaldo. Failing that, Solari could at least give himself a fighting chance if he can mastermind some positive results and performances against Barcelona over the next month.
Solari will almost certainly get until the summer whatever the outcome of these games but were Barca to win this Semi-Final tie and then at least avoid defeat in the league meeting in early March, Real Madrid’s search for a successor would certainly step up a few gears. That scenario would leave Los Blancos without domestic silverware again, whilst setting their bitter rivals up for another double. That’s something a stopgap appointment like Solari is highly unlikely to survive, even though he inherited a situation that was always going to make a title challenge a long shot.
The first big test of Barca’s Squad
Success in Europe will still be the main priority for both clubs and in truth neither Ernesto Valverde or Santi Solari would have particularly wanted this draw. It hugely limits their options in terms of rotation with Barca tending to rest key players in the 1st Legs of this competition this term, something that won’t really be an option here.
They may have no choice but to play some fringe players though due to their current selection headaches. Certainly over the next month, there will be games where they have to rotate with some signs of tiredness already evident at the weekend against Valencia. They desperately need someone to step up and take the burden off Leo Messi, who remains their go-to man in just about every situation.
There has always been a suspicion though that it is still Real Madrid who may boast the stronger squad and Los Blancos certainly have personnel more suited to a rotation policy. They have a number of positions where they have players genuinely competing for a starting role whereas Barca’s first eleven largely picks itself with very few exceptions.
That’s a worry for Barcelona fans at a period like this as there will be times over the next month where they need their squad players to come in and at least not let themselves down over this vital period in the season.