Both Real Madrid and Barcelona face a battle to land this year's La Liga title, but Copa del Rey glory is just one win away for El Clasico's behemoths.
Atletico Madrid's dominance at the top of Spain's domestic division currently sees Diego Simeone's men three points ahead of their capital-based rivals and four ahead of the Blaugrana. As such, Wednesday's final at the Mestalla takes on greater prominence, especially as both participants enter the fixture with major injury problems to overcome.
Here, we take a run through the latest team news and fitness issues before predicting how such occurrences will alter the big match.
Latest Team News
Gerardo Martino must wonder what he's done to upset football's elder gods. He enters this match on the back of two important defeats: ending Barcelona's hopes of Champions League success and making their La Liga defence rather unlikely—without a recognised back four.
The recent 1-0 loss to Granada, which sit 13th in the top flight, was summarised by Barca's finishing centre-back pairing of Alexander Song and Javier Mascherano. Injuries to Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra leave a once monstrous defence appearing vulnerable from all kinds of situations.
Song was dispossessed well beyond the halfway line for Granada's goal. Not only was he out of position, the Cameroonian dawdled on the ball and was unable to track back to make up for his mistake. Yacine Brahimi neatly finished a speedy move by the home side, highlighting Barcelona's lack of pace at the rear.
Mascherano's continued stint in defence also opens up the side to aerial problems. At just over 5'7", he will be targeted by Karim Benzema, who will easily outjump his opponent if Real can pump pinpoint crosses into the box. Furthermore, Victor Valdes' continued absence means the enigmatic Jose Manuel Pinto will maintain his stint between the sticks.
As noted by Ian Hawkey of The Telegraph, Martino "may have to keep the heart of defence in place for the cup final." Although a worrying proposition, their opponents are likely to be without Cristiano Ronaldo, whose injuries are highlighted by Graham Hunter in his column for the Mail Online:
"A little bit of knee tendonitis, a hamstring strain — a colossal athletic frame which normally processes such hindrances but which, right at the moment, is creaking a bit," reads the article.
Carlo Ancelotti's options are also reduced by the absence of Jese Rodriguez, who is set to miss the rest of the season after sustaining a serious knee injury, per Sky Sports.
Sergio Ramos remains a doubt after suffering a shoulder problem, while Sami Khedira is unlikely to play after a long lay off, per Sky Sports, despite taking part in training. Dermot Corrigan of ESPN FC and Real Madrid's official Twitter provide the details:
Despite both sides feeling the heat of a hectic schedule, don't expect this Clasico to be anything less than explosive.
This is Barcelona's most likely route to silverware. Lose in the final and Tata's plans will indeed be in tatters, as he surely won't survive the fallout. If Real are finally going to land the treble, Ancelotti needs to relentlessly attack.
As such, Angel Di Maria and Gareth Bale have a huge role to play here. With Ronaldo expected to be missing, it's this duo who will stretch Barca's full-backs wide. Once this happens, Mascherano and his unnatural central-defensive partner (whether it's Song or Sergio Busquets), will have too much space to cover.
Benzema's presence and quick support from midfield will also be pivotal. The Frenchman must consciously remain close to Mascherano, while the interweaving dribbling skills of Luka Modric and Isco have the means to overwork Barca's back four.
If Tata is to emerge victorious, he needs to have a Plan B. Barcelona struggle when Messi, Andres Iniesta and Neymar cannot get into the game, but the coach fails to deploy any other system.
Messi needs to receive the ball just in front of Madrid's defence, but he will need the close support of Barca's wide players to ensure he isn't overpowered by Pepe, who we can expect to be at his most combative.
Although both teams head into this under major pressure, Real will be most confident of a win. Barcelona's season will stand on the brink of total failure if they lose. Considering their horrific injury problems, it's difficult to see how Martino's men will be able to halt Ancelotti's attack, if the Italian boss goes for a boldly offensive approach.
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Barcelona
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