Barcelona take on Valencia in the second-leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final clash on Thursday night under the lights at the Mestalla (12:30am+1).
The away side carry a slender 1-0 advantage into the fixture, and with a treble still very much on for Ernesto Valverde’s side this term, he will expect no let-up from his players as they look to secure a spot in the domestic cup final and retain the title which they won against Alaves last term.
Here, we look at three Blaugrana talking points ahead of the last four meeting:
YERRY MINA TO MAKE BARCELONA DEBUT
Yerry Mina is set to be thrown into the cauldron of the Mestalla for his Blaugrana debut. Barcelona, so far, have been pretty cautious over the Colombian and allowed the man from Palmeiras time to find his feet in Catalonia. But, with Gerard Pique out injured along with Thomas Vermaelen, the 23-year-old is a certain starter in Valverde’s XI on Thursday night. He is the only other natural centre-back in the ranks and although Valencia away will be far from a walk in the park, it’s the perfect time to blood him alongside Samuel Umtiti.
Two other options are deploying either Nelson Semedo or Sergio Busquets in one of the central positions or selecting youngster David Costas, which would be a real gamble. Expect Barca to give Mina a go and Umtiti can guide him through the process. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto will take up the full-back berths in a defence which has only conceded five goals in 10 matches since the turn of the year.
PHILIPPE COUTINHO IS READY FOR ANOTHER 90 MINUTES
After playing the full match – his first 90 minutes in a Barca jersey – during Sunday’s draw at Espanyol, the Brazilian showed he is now up to full speed fitness-wise and played well in treacherous conditions in Catalonia. Spanish media were quick to pounce on Coutinho, though, suggesting that his creativity was too little on the left flank and his influence was scarce when he floated inside. Pretty harsh. The former Liverpool man made more key passes (3) and crosses (7) than any other Barcelona player as well as putting in a shift defensively against his dogged former club, and also made three tackles.
While Barca had to dig deep in that game and were without the mercurial Lionel Messi for the best part of 60 minutes, Coutinho’s energy levels were never in doubt. With that in mind, he’ll start in a front three alongside Messi and Luis Suarez with Paulinho, Andres Iniesta and Busquets making up the midfield against a combative Los Che outfit. Given Coutinho is cup-tied for this month’s Champions League clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (February 20), the 25-year-old will be used regularly up until then.
A FRESH LIONEL MESSI SHOULD SEE BARCELONA TO VICTORY
It’s always an unusual sight to see Messi sat on the bench. And yet, there he was, for 59 minutes, watching on as the rain just kept pouring down at Espanyol. But, of course, when he entered the fray on Sunday he was always going to make an impact and that he did when he assisted Pique’s late equaliser with his 10th assist of the season to help Barca maintain their 22-match league unbeaten streak.
A little bit of a rest, as Valverde has hinted at in recent weeks, should mean the 30-year-old club legend is more than ready for Thursday evening. It was a wise decision, given he had played a full part in Barca’s past six matches. In fact, with two low-key La Liga matches coming up: Getafe at home on Sunday (February 11) and Eibar away the following Saturday (February 17), Messi will definitely get 90 minutes here and could be spared for one of those two matches with a firm eye on Chelsea in less than a couple of weeks time.
The central defender’s cheeky sense of humour and his determination to speak his mind lands him in all sorts of trouble.
Whether it’s winding up Real Madrid fans, being harangued by supporters of the Spanish national team or mocking his club side’s local rivals Espanyol, Pique always seems to be upsetting someone, somewhere.
And that’s a shame, because it can prevent us from appreciating his talents as an outstanding central defender who is just as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is when attacking it in the air.
Now, though, Pique’s sporting ability may actually get some recognition following the news that he suffered a knee injury during Sunday’s feisty local derby draw with Espanyol.
And although concerns over the scale of the damage have now eased, the nervousness with which Barca fans are awaiting precise news over his condition shows just how integral he is to the team’s success.
Without Pique, manager Ernesto Valverde would be forced to partner the equally outstanding Samuel Umtiti with either Thomas Vermaelen, who is currently in the latter stages of recovery from his latest injury, or new signing Yerry Mina, who has not yet played for the club.
Neither of those options would fill fans with much confidence ahead of their team’s attempts to stop Eden Hazard and co, and Pique’s marshalling of his team’s defence – which he was even able to display in the flooded debris of Sunday’s local derby – will have a major role in Barca’s quest to secure their second league, cup and European treble in three years.
His importance is even greater now that long-serving and always reliable Javier Mascherano has now departed for China, and Barca really need Mina or Vermaelen to become a trusted first-choice deputy in the centre of defence, because at the moment neither of them are.
One thing that won’t change, we can be sure, is Pique’s habit of creating controversy – even when he doesn’t really deserve it.
Sunday’s game at Espanyol, for example, was followed by a passionate post-match dissection of Pique’s celebration of his equalising goal, with one TV show in Spain even debating whether or not he should have been sent off for his ‘be quiet’ gesture towards the home team’s fans.
6 – Gerard Piqué has scored six goals against Espanyol, his favourite opponent for Barcelona in all competitions. Rivalry. pic.twitter.com/I2VNKKgURP
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 5, 2018
As Pique noted after the game, considering the abuse he has ritually received from Espanyol fans over the last few years – much of which are obscene chants about his partner Shakira – putting his finger calmly to his lips is hardly the worst thing in the world for the defender to have done.
Indeed, his celebration was nothing compared to the actions – in the very same game – of Espanyol forward Sergio Garcia, who has been accused of (and has hardly rushed to deny) hurling racist abuse at Umtiti.
Garcia’s half-baked ‘apology’ on Instagram basically comes across as an admission that he did act in a racist manner towards Umtiti, who had to be forcibly restrained – by Pique, notably – from accosting his abuser on the pitch.
Yet it appears that no action will be taken against Garcia, because Spanish football authorities have a habit of sweeping such matters under the table. Unlike telling fans who are hurling obscene abuse to be quiet, which is apparently a major problem.
Priorities, it seems, need to be reconsidered.
Espanyol striker Sergio Garcia has denied racially abusing Barcelona‘s Samuel Umtiti in the Catalan derby on Sunday, saying that he had cleared the incident up with Umtiti directly.
“In no way were my intentions racist,” Garcia posted on Instagram.
“You all know that my wife is of gypsy ethnicity and that I grew up in a neighbourhood with all the races in the world.
“My brother-in-law, with whom I have a strong friendship, is also African-American.
“Many things are said in the heat of a game which should stay on the pitch. Forca Espanyol!”
Umtiti was visibly outraged at the end of Sunday’s match, and fellow Barcelona defender Gerard Pique had to drag the Frenchman away from Garcia. The two then reportedly clashed again in the tunnel.
Spanish media alleged that Garcia called Umtiti a “black s***” during the on-pitch confrontation. Garcia reportedly later went to the Barcelona dressing room to apologise.