Barcelona need to beat Real Madrid in Wednesday's Copa del Rey final at Valencia's Mestalla Stadium to avoid a complete collapse of their season.
The last week has seen the Catalan side knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid and suffer a 1-0 defeat to lowly Granada to fall four points behind Diego Simeone's side in La Liga.
With the Copa del Rey now their only realistic chance of significant silverware this season, Gerardo Martino will be desperately hoping for a victory over their old rivals.
Meanwhile, Real are through to the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they will face Bayern Munich, and a 4-0 win over Almeria in La Liga at the weekend kept them three points behind Atletico in the title race.
However, they will be without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, per Infostrada Sports:
Ronaldo will not play Copa del Rey final. He has scored 13 Clásico goals vs Barcelona. He has only scored more often against Sevilla (16).— Infostrada Sports (@InfostradaLive) April 15, 2014
Read on for a look at the key players in this El Clasico final, and predictions about the outcome of the game.
Without Ronaldo in the team, Bale should be given more freedom to roam the pitch and will be relied upon to use his devastating pace to create opportunities for his side.
In his debut season in Spanish football, a first appearance in the Copa del Rey final will be a massive occasion for the 24-year-old Welshman.
He has acquitted himself well so far this term, providing both goals and assists aplenty, per WhoScored.com:
Gareth Bale: Has directly contributed to 35 goals in his 38 apps for Real Madrid this season (scoring 19, assisting 16)— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) April 12, 2014
However, he was relatively anonymous last month when Barcelona overcame Madrid 4-3 in La Liga, and he was lambasted by many in the media, including L'Equipe, via Agence France-Presse's Tom Williams:
L'Equipe gives Gareth Bale 4/10 for Clasico performance. "Disappointing" and "practically didn't exist when Real didn't have possession".— Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) March 24, 2014
He has also been criticised for not necessarily scoring the crucial goals for Madrid, per Jim White in The Telegraph:
"The feeling is that [Bale's] goals so far have been the gilding on the lily; he has, for instance, yet to score the winner in a match for his club," wrote White.
Wednesday's final provides the former Tottenham man with the chance to truly impact on his new club's season.
If he can bag the decisive goal or put in a match-winning performance it could be the making of the ex-Southampton player at Real Madrid.
Angel Di Maria
The Argentine winger was absolutely fantastic in last month's goal-fest of an El Clasico. Despite Real's loss, he was one of the best players on the pitch—especially in the first half, as these Squawka stats show:
Angel di Maria half in numbers: 75% cross & 94% pass completion rate, 7 take-ons completed, 4 chances created. pic.twitter.com/shHGmJhxdO— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 23, 2014
He comes into Wednesday's final in scoring form, having bagged the first goal for Ancelotti's side against Almeria on Saturday, per BBC Sport.
If he can replicate the kind of performance he showed at the Bernabeu in March then he should prove incredibly difficult for the Barcelona defence to deal with.
But according to Goal.com, the 26-year-old may be playing for his future at the club:
Angel di Maria has a major point to prove if he is to be assured of a spot in the Blancos squad for 2014-15.
While his Italian coach has been buoyed by his upturn in performances since Christmas, the club's board are less than happy with the Argentine's fluctuating fortunes over the past couple of years. With the movers and shakers at the Bernabeu looking to boost their stocks in midfield this summer, Di Maria's future could hang on exactly how much the capital outfit need to cover the cost of whoever comes in.
There would be no better place to ensure one's future than to put in a key performance against Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey.
The Argentinian superstar has taken some flak this season for his seeming dip in form from previous terms.
Despite his continued high scoring—25 goals in 26 league appearances this season, per Squawka—he has not quite been able to reach the stratospheric levels people have come to expect from him.
The 26-year-old took particular criticism for his apparent lack of effort in Barca's 1-0 Champions League second-leg quarter-final loss to Atletico last week.
Spanish football writer Dermot Corrigan gives an insight into why this was:
Messi ran just 6.8 km last night, only 1.4km more than Pinto (5.4 km), and just over half the 12.2 km covered by Atletico matchwinner Koke.— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) April 10, 2014
However, Messi is not a player that can be written off very easily, and he is still absolutely essential to Barcelona's chances of beating Real.
He scored a hat-trick in last month's El Clasico victory, per BBC Sport, and the lure of Copa del Rey triumph should be enough to galvanise arguably the world's best footballer, especially considering a defeat in this final would most likely condemn Barcelona to a trophyless season.
Any El Clasico is invariably a feisty affair. The occasional brawl is not unlikely, while a stream of yellow cards is all but guaranteed.
The most-recent meeting between these two sides saw Sergio Ramos sent off and a further seven players receiving cautions, per BBC Sport.
The last time these two sides met in the Copa del Rey final was at the same stadium in 2011, when Cristiano Ronaldo's extra-time goal saw Real claim a 1-0 victory.
It could again take more than 90 minutes to separate these two sides on this occasion. However, 0-0 in normal time is highly unlikely—their two La Liga meetings this season have produced 10 goals, per ESPN FC.
Final Score Prediction: 2-2 in normal time, Real to win 3-2 after extra time.