El Clásico preview: Real Madrid, Barcelona battle for the Copa del Rey

Denis Doyle

This isn't a fairly meaningless third-tier competition anymore. It's a potentially season-defining Clásico for Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Gerardo "Tata" Martino and Carlo Ancelotti are both just one season into their respective managerial reigns, but they're both on the hot seat. Thanks to Atlético Madrid's complete shakeup of Spain's duopoly, Barcelona are out of the UEFA Champions League and it's very possible that one of them or Real Madrid will finish third in La Liga.

On current form, Barcelona look the least likely of Spain's new big three to lift the league title at the end of the season. And because of that and their aforementioned European exit, the Copa del Rey final is by far the biggest game of their season, or will be if they're not within three points of Atléti and ahead of Madrid entering the final round of the league season. This represents Barca's best chance to win a trophy, salvage their season and perhaps give Tata a second season in charge at Camp Nou.

But even though Barcelona look like the side more in need of a victory on Wednesday, another Clásico loss -- this time in a cup final -- could be Ancelotti's undoing. It's very possible that they could get taken apart by Pep Guardiola's side in the Champions League semifinals and finish third in La Liga. That nightmare scenario, along with a Copa del Rey loss to Barcelona, would probably lead to Ancelotti being shown the door after just one year in charge.

With all that in mind, Wednesday's final could very well make or break either team's season. And even though he got eliminated from this competition in convincing fashion, Diego Simeone will be laughing on his couch as his two rivals scratch and claw at each other in desperation.

When we last met

Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona in La Liga. The match featured some very controversial refereeing decisions, leading Sergio Ramos to declare that there was a conspiracy against Madrid.

Team news

Sami Khedira is on the road to recovery for Real Madrid and is expected to get fit in time to appear at the end of the season and make Germany's preliminary World Cup roster, but he won't be available on Wednesday. Cristiano Ronaldo is out as well, despite suggestions earlier in the week that he might risk his fitness by playing. The man who would have replaced him, Jese, is out for the season, while Alvaro Arbeloa and Marcelo miss out as well. Sergio Ramos is a slight doubt, but expect him to play.

Gerard Pique will miss Wednesday's final, leaving Barcelona with a makeshift defense yet again. Victor Valdes is out for the season, making things worse for Barcelona, though Jose Manuel Pinto might have played anyway. Carles Puyol and Marc Bartra have been declared out, so Barcelona are exceptionally thin at the back. Long-term absentees Jonathan dos Santos and Isaac Cuenca remain sidelined.

Projected lineups (left to right)

Real Madrid (4-3-3): Iker Casillas; Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Dani Carvajal; Angel Di Maria, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric; Isco, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale

Barcelona (4-3-3): Jose Manuel Pinto; Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Alex Song, Dani Alves; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta; Neymar, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi

football formations

Key Matchups

Sergio Busquets vs. Angel Di Maria...again - We highlighted this matchup ahead of the last league Clásico, and given what happened that game and what's transpired since, it's even more important for this match. With Ronaldo out, Di Maria's counter-attacking is going to be even more important for Madrid. And with Gerard Pique injured, Busquets' ability to slow him down is going to be even more important for Barca. This matchup is everything in Madrid's attacking transitional phase.

Lionel Messi and Dani Alves vs. Nacho Fernandez - Martino might have started Cesc Fabregas as a false nine and Lionel Messi on the right wing even if Marcelo or Arbeloa were available, but it's even more tempting with Fernandez defending Madrid's left flank. Messi drops deep and runs all over the place, so defending him is always a team effort, but it'll be up to Nacho to both track his runs and account for Dani Alves' overlapping sprints down the left flank. He's a talented player, but he might end up overwhelmed. Isco and Di Maria will need to do a lot of defensive work to help out.

Prediction

Barcelona are in awful form, have a bad defense and will probably have to start either Adriano or Alex Song next to Javier Mascherano on Wednesday. Martino's almost certainly on his way out the door at the end of the season, Neymar looks like he's wearing down from the demands of a European season, Fabregas is in bad form and Pinto isn't half the player Valdes is. Meanwhile, Real Madrid are playing well and seem to be getting the most out of Gareth Bale, Isco and Karim Benzema in Ronaldo's absence.

This was all true before the last Clásico, but Barcelona just seemed to have Madrid's number, and maybe they still do. Plus, do you want to pick against Carles Puyol in what will likely be the last meaningful game of his career? 2-1 Barcelona.

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