When asked on the streets in the build-up to the second El Clasico of the season, Real Madrid fans would insist on live television that they would rather play a Barcelona side armed with a fit Lionel Messi. While putting on a brave face and showing no weakness is often the way to go when speaking about rivals, Los Blancos would be in a far less precarious situation if Ernesto Valverde deems the Argentine as not yet ready to start at Camp Nou on Wednesday evening.
Barcelona have won the last four domestic cups in a row, not once requiring a victory in the final against Real Madrid. After a disappointing recent trophy haul in terms of league titles and Copa del Rey silverware, Florentino Perez’s hiring of Julen Lopetegui at the outset of the campaign perhaps told a tale of a president that was looking to turn an increasingly young and Spanish squad into a force that played in such a way that victory in Europe under the lights would not be the only way that they would conquer titles.
As it turned out, Lopetegui’s final game in charge would be October’s 4-1 El Clasico defeat, where patience ran out as a Messi-less Barça romped their way to three points in LaLiga and an embarrassing scoreline. Since then, plenty has changed for the better at Real Madrid. Santiago Solari has inspired further confidence from his group, who arrive far healthier than when they were put to the sword at Camp Nou, without instilling a particular philosophy of play or strong identity.
Los Blancos have clambered up to third place, within eight points of league leaders Barcelona, but know that they will have a far better chance of success in cup competitions. While Valverde’s side will be confident of another La Liga title and a better run in the Champions League this time around, there is definitely the sense that Real Madrid have far more to lose in the Copa del Rey’s semi-final stages. Without Cristiano Ronaldo (£9.09), another consecutive European title looks far less likely, meaning the Copa del Rey could be the only way to salvage a disappointing season.
Sergio Reguilon (£1.41) has solved Solari’s issues at left back for the time being, with the academy product deemed to be far more reliable on the defensive side of things in comparison to Marcelo (£1.82). Karim Benzema (£2.26) has been performing at a very high level in recent weeks to give Real Madrid a focal point to link up with and play around. Vinicius Jr (£11.27) is quickly becoming the man to fill the Ronaldo-shaped hole on Solari’s left flank, despite being a mere teenager. Only Isco (£4.70) and Marcelo have seen their stock fall in recent months.
Given that Messi (£15.75) will not be at 100 per cent on Wednesday evening, and also that Valencia managed to scrape a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou at the weekend, now is the best opportunity for Solari’s side to put down a yardstick with regarding to just how much progress they have made since late October. Fail to put in a good performance over two legs or suffer another embarrassing scoreline on the road and it does little to suggest that Florentino Perez won’t be tempted to make further alterations once the summer rolls around.
Barcelona can trot out at Camp Nou safe in the knowledge that they still have the opportunity to lift three trophies, but Real Madrid do enjoy taking teams back to Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for the second leg. Avoid a heavy defeat and there is every possibility of a turnaround. Marco Asensio (£4.40) and Gareth Bale (£6.13) are back fit and ready to contribute, while Los Blancos as a whole have recorded wins in their last five outings.
Heading into potentially one of their biggest games of the season, Real Madrid could hardly wish to be in better shape given their start to the campaign and their lack of transfer activity in January. Solari’s younger players will be keen to show that they have a long-term future at the club and the right mentality to succeed, while those who played a big role under Lopetegui will want to right the wrongs of their 4-1 defeat last year. Solari himself will be targeting buying himself further time at the helm.
Real Madrid are still waiting for a new figure to step up to the plate definitively and prove that they can help to shoulder the huge responsibilities of scoring when it really matters which Ronaldo left behind last summer. Benzema, Vinicius and Bale, the newly nicknamed BBV, hold the key to doing so. A positive first-leg result would have exciting short-term consequences, of course, but a negative one could put the preparatory wheels in motion for a busy summer.