Barcelona and Real Madrid go into tonight's Copa del Rey semi-final first leg from very different viewpoints. For the former a victory could signal the start of another memorable and successful year, for the latter it is one of the last chances to salvage something from what has been a disappointing and turbulent season.
On the pitch Madrid have looked a much improved side since 2013 began, gaining more points in the League than Barcelona in January and, with their blistering 5-0 thrashing of Valencia 10 days ago, they finally looked like the same team that swept to the title last season with 100 points and 121 goals.
But off the pitch the club is in disarray, with Florentino Perez calling an emergency Press conference last week to deny a story that Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas had told him that several players would leave in the summer if Jose Mourinho stayed on as Coach. The situation was hardly helped when Casillas’ girlfriend and prominent television journalist Sara Carbonero (http://www.football-espana.net/27921/carbonero-players-disagree-mou) explained on Mexican television on Tuesday that Madrid dressing room was still divided.
By contrast Barcelona appear to be in an almost perfect state as an institution, with Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez signing new contracts earlier this month and Leo Messi’s new deal set to be completed next week. The club have even dealt with their Coach Tito Vilanova suffering a relapse of cancer in an exemplary manner, insisting on his privacy during the ordeal, while assistant Jordi Roura has won every game in which he has had to stand in for his boss.
For Madrid, tonight’s clash is the first game in a crucial five weeks that will make or break their season, preceding the two Champions League ties with Manchester United, the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final and then the League fixture with Barcelona, in which they will look for a win only to try and regain some dignity in a title race they know is already over.
The importance of this period to Madrid was underlined by the signing of Diego Lopez from Sevilla, brought in less than 48 hours after it was confirmed that Casillas would be out for two months due to a fractured hand.
Madrid have put Lopez in the same team as the regular starters in practice matches leading up to tonight's game and it is almost certain he will start ahead of Antonio Adan, who has hardly covered himself in glory when he has had to deputise for Casillas, conceding nine goals in 622 minutes and nearly jeopardising his team in his penultimate League game when he was sent off after just six minutes against Real Sociedad.
Casillas is far from the only important player that will be absent from Madrid's line-up at the Bernabeu, with Marcelo and Pepe still recovering from injury, and Sergio Ramos, Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria still serving suspensions. This means Madrid are likely to start with a back four consisting of Michael Essien, Raphael Varane, Ricardo Carvalho and Alvaro Arbeloa, a defence which shipped three goals against Real Sociedad at the start of the year.
With the exception of Eric Abidal and Jonathan dos Santos, Barca have a full squad to choose from, but the real absentee will be Vilanova, who is still in New York visiting doctors but will be watching the game live and sending his thoughts and advice to Roura via WhatsApp.
The game will once again be seen as a battle between the two best players in the world, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who both go into the game on the back of hat-tricks from the weekend. Ronaldo has scored 10 goals in 2013 so far, with Messi on nine, but the Argentine could make history tonight – if he scores he will draw level with Alfredo Di Stefano as the all-time top scorer in the history of the Clasico with 18 goals.
The two sides’ contrasting fortunes in the League and Madrid's long absentee list make Barcelona the favourites, but Roura has insisted he is under no illusions about the opposition: “It is precisely in these circumstances that Madrid are at their most dangerous. Madrid, whether with a full or depleted squad, are still an outstanding team and are very difficult to beat at their place. We know it will be difficult.”