The La Liga title race temporarily takes a backseat for El Clasico rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona, who lock horns in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final at the Bernabeu on Thursday evening.
Los Blancos defeated city rivals Atletico Madrid 3-1 in the last eight to progress this far, while Xavi’s side needed just the one goal to eliminate Real Sociedad.
With an astounding quadruple still a distinct possibility heading into the spring months, Real Madrid’s trophy cabinet is itching to welcome another Copa del Rey crown, which rather incredibly has not been won by Los Blancos since the 2013-14 campaign.
Cacereno and Villarreal both fell to the superiority of Real Madrid before a stern test versus Atletico awaited in the quarter-finals, where Alvaro Morata would return to haunt his old club, but Rodrygo forced extra time before Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior saved Los Blancos’ bacon.
Another Madrid derby with Los Rojiblancos in La Liga would not be a smooth affair for Carlo Ancelotti’s men either, as breakout teenage star Alvaro Rodriguez endeared himself to the Bernabeu faithful with a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw, which puts Los Blancos seven points behind Barcelona in the La Liga standings.
Barcelona’s shock defeat to Almeria means that there is still a glimmer of hope for Real Madrid, whose five-game winning run in all tournaments was brought to an end on Saturday evening, and a first Copa del Rey semi-final since the 2018-19 campaign now lies in wait.
That year, Real drew the first leg of their semi-final clash with Barcelona 1-1 before bowing out with a 3-0 defeat at the Bernabeu, but with form and fitness concerns working against them, the latest instalment of El Clasico could hardly have come at a worse time for La Blaugrana.
With one avenue to success in the Europa League now closed off courtesy of Manchester United, Barcelona’s need for glory in the Spanish top flight has become ever more dire, so it was no surprise to see Xavi overcome with fury following Sunday’s upset to Almeria.
Ironically, a Luis Suarez was one of the architects behind Barcelona’s downfall – not La Blaugrana’s former Uruguayan luminary, though – as the Colombia international set up El Bilal Toure for the game’s only goal in the 24th minute of the match, preventing Xavi’s side from going 10 points clear at the top.
An unassailable seven-point chasm is nonetheless a healthy advantage for the success-starved Catalans, but suffering back-to-back defeats for the first time since April is not what the doctor ordered before El Clasico, and neither is an injury to star striker Robert Lewandowski.
One-nil was also the scoreline when Barcelona defeated 10-man Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey quarters – Ousmane Dembele’s effort proved decisive that day – and Xavi’s side have also avoided giant killings against Intercity and Ceuta to progress to the semi-finals for the 11th time in 13 seasons.
Thursday’s first leg will mark the 252nd competitive Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the latter of whom won 3-1 in January’s Supercopa de Espana final, but Los Blancos prevailed by the same scoreline at the Bernabeu back in October, and the odds are stacked heavily in their favour to glean a first-leg advantage here.
During their quarter-final win over Atletico in January, Real Madrid lost Ferland Mendy to a thigh injury which is yet to heal, and he has since been joined in the treatment room by Rodrygo and David Alaba, who were casualties of their Champions League last-16 first leg win over Liverpool.
Rodrygo has made a rapid return to training and could make himself available, but Alaba is sure to miss out, while Luka Modric will serve a suspension against Real Betis this weekend but is fine to line up here.
Now fully recovered from a bout of flu, Aurelien Tchouameni could freshen up the Blancos midfield alongside Modric – who was only a substitute against Atletico at the weekend – which could push Federico Valverde further forward in place of Marco Asensio.
As mentioned, Barcelona have suffered an untimely injury blow with Lewandowski, who sustained a hamstring injury during the weekend’s defeat to Almeria. The Catalans have not placed a timeframe on his recovery, but he is sure to watch this one from the sidelines.
Ousmane Dembele and Pedri are also out of contention with their own thigh problems, but on a brighter note, Xavi is hopeful that Ansu Fati’s bruised knee will heal in time for the first leg.
The 20-year-old is one option to deputise for Lewandowski through the middle, but Ferran Torres should get the nod as the number nine, allowing Raphinha to return out wide after his peculiar post-Manchester United injury – damaging his foot by kicking a fridge out of anger following his substitution.
Real Madrid possible starting lineup:
Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Rudiger, Nacho; Kroos, Tchouameni, Modric; Valverde, Benzema, Vinicius Jr
Barcelona possible starting lineup:
Ter Stegen; Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Balde; De Jong, Busquets, Roberto; Raphinha, Torres, Gavi