Once again, it’s that time of year where the world’s eyes turn to Spain for a fiesta of football in El Clasico, as Real Madrid take on Barcelona.
The Spanish giants will meet in the final of the Copa del Rey at Mestalla, Valencia, for the first time since 2011, where Madrid edged past their rivals in dramatic fashion.
That final was the sixth time that the sides have met in the Copa final—per Real Madrid’s official website—and it was Portuguese sensation Cristiano Ronaldo who stole the headlines on that occasion with an extra-time winner.
Ronaldo nodded home Angel Di Maria’s cross in extra time to give Madrid their 1-0 victory, though the big news of this year’s tie is that the 29-year-old won’t be able to repeat his exploits of 2011 as he’s out through injury.
Below, we look at how Madrid are likely to line up without the mercurial Ronaldo and which Barcelona side will be looking to end the Galacticos’ Copa dream.
Venue: Estadio Mestalla, Valencia
Date: Wednesday, April 16
Time: 8:30 p.m. BST/5:30 p.m. ET
TV: SkySports 1 / ESPN
While Ronaldo’s absence will be an enormous blow for the Whites, they have shown this season that they are far from a one-man team whenever he has been unavailable.
As WeAreMadrid10 revealed, the club’s record without the former Manchester United star in the team is something to admire:
The record gets even more impressive—per ESPN FC’s statistics—with Real Madrid’s last four matches without Ronaldo resulting in four resounding victories, where they've scored 14 goals without a single reply.
Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti recently praised the way that his team have conducted themselves in their star man’s absence, as Dermot Corrigan reported (via Fox Soccer):
Cristiano is not available to play. We do not want to take risks as we have other important games this season. [But] we have played very well in games he's missed, worked more, and ran more. I am sure we have prepared very well and are going to play very well tomorrow.
In Madrid’s recent meeting with Almeria in La Liga, Di Maria filled Ronaldo’s boots to good effect—opening the scoring in a 4-0 victory at the Bernabeu.
The Argentinian is likely to be given the same task at Mestalla on Wednesday, with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema making up the rest of Madrid’s razor-sharp attack.
Marcelo, Jese, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira make up the long-term injury list for Ancelotti’s side, though the latter is reportedly back in training, per John Drayton of the Daily Mail.
Returning to the fold, though, are Xabi Alonso and Dani Carvajal, who were recently sidelined with suspension.
Alonso’s return means that either Asier Illarramendi or Isco will drop to the bench after starting against Almeria, though both will likely play a part, with Isco’s attacking qualities enough to cause the Barcelona defence endless problems.
Ancelotti will likely stick with his trusted 4-3-3 formation. Here’s the possible starting 11:
Casillas, Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao, Modric, Alonso, Isco, Bale, Benzema, Di Maria.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are under pressure to produce a performance after winning just one of their last four matches in all competitions—per ESPN FC.
The Copa del Rey may be Barcelona’s last chance of silverware this year, having been dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid and sitting third in La Liga, so expect Gerardo Martino to field a strong, attacking team
As Sky Sports reported, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique face late fitness tests ahead of Wednesday’s final:
Barcelona's Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will both have late fitness tests ahead of the Copa del Rey final - we'll have the latest on #SSN— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) April 16, 2014
If neither of them is passed fit, the unorthodox centre-back pairing of Javier Mascherano and Alex Song will once again start in the heart of defence.
Other than that, Barcelona have no fresh injury concerns to report and are likely to start with their full-strength front six.
Martino’s tactical approach will determine whether or not Barcelona will lead with a diamond formation with two strikers, or adopt a 4-3-3 formation like Madrid.
Lionel Messi will start in attack no matter what, and his double in Barcelona’s 4-3 win over their rivals in La Liga last month made him El Clasico’s all-time highest scorer:
With Madrid offering an irresistible attacking force, Martino could field four in midfield, with Sergio Busquets and Xavi holding, and Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas occupying the wide roles.
That would leave Brazilian sensation Neymar up front alongside Messi, with Alexis Sanchez and Pedro taking to the bench.
It’s bound to be a thriller in Valencia. Here’s the possible Barcelona starting 11 who’ll look to play their part:
Pinto, Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Alba, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Messi, Neymar.