When Raphäel Varane scored an equalizer for Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal tie against Barcelona, it gave Los Merengues' season new life. While they were (and still are) involved in the Champions League, a home loss to Barcelona in the competition they have the best chance of winning would have been devastating. Instead of heading to the Camp Nou as dead men walking, they will take the pitch on Tuesday feeling confident that if they perform to the best of their abilities, they can advance to the final.
Barcelona are still cruising atop La Liga and will capture that trophy without a problem, but their season has taken a turn for the worse recently. Varane's goal was an extremely minor setback compared to last week's performance at the San Siro, where they were soundly beaten 2-0 by a superior AC Milan side.
The Blaugrana have appeared to be on cruise control in many of their league matches, but were winning comfortably despite their deficiencies. As long as they continued to rack up results, Barcelona's problem -- a less incisive and ruthless team than in years passed -- was out of sight and out of mind. Milan's performance suddenly made their issues very apparent and very real.
As neither side looks like the current team to beat in the Champions League, Tuesday's match could be a make-or-break one in the seasons of both Barcelona and Real Madrid. It would be difficult to wash away the disappointment of a Round of 16 exit in the Champions League for either team, but a Copa del Rey title will make that bitter pill much easier to swallow, and could be the difference between supporters being patient or calling for an overhaul of their club.
The only serious injury concern for Barcelona is Adriano, who likely would only be a substitute even if he was healthy. However, he's an extremely useful substitute and Roura will be hoping he'll be fit in time for the match. He's an excellent pair of fresh legs at either fullback spot, and he's a top notch defensive winger. Jose Manuel Pinto is expected to start ahead of Victor Valdes as per usual in the Copa del Rey.
Real Madrid's only confirmed absence is Iker Casillas, who is still out with a broken wrist. Raphäel Varane, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema are recovering from minor nagging injuries and should all be available to start if Mourinho wants to pick them.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Jordi Alba vs. Angel Di Maria: As good as Angel Di Maria has been this season, he'll have his hands full with the forward runs of Jordi Alba. He provides a fantastic wide outlet down the left flank for Barcelona, and Di Maria will need to track him.
Jose Mourinho vs. Jordi Roura/Tito Vilanova: If Massimiliano Allegri can get the better of Jordi Roura and Tito Vilanova, surely Jose Mourinho can figure something out? Perhaps it's time for him to go back to negative football in an attempt to stifle and defeat the Blaugrana. The Merengues supporters won't like it too much, but it worked for Milan for a reason.
Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta vs. themselves: Both Cesc and Iniesta are in poor form at the moment, and will need to up their games on Tuesday. Their games do depend on other forward players making good runs, which they weren't really doing against Milan, but they have to attempt (and occasionally complete) difficult and creative penetrative passes when the opportunities present themselves.
Madrid's CBs vs. their markers on attacking set pieces: Raphäel Varane's goal in the first leg was no fluke. Madrid's central defenders (and Cristiano Ronaldo) are bigger, stronger, and better jumpers than anyone on Barcelona. The Blaugrana don't have to make a bad mistake to concede on a set piece. This is a simple reality of the physical attributes of both teams. Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Varane are among the hardest players in the world to mark on set plays, but Barca will have to do something to keep them from getting free headers.
Real Madrid need a 1-1 draw to force extra time or a higher scoring draw to progress. Barcelona's recent form suggests that a result like this is doable for Los Merengues. I like a 2-2 draw and Madrid to progress to the final.