Barcelona boss Tata Martino believes his players will bounce back from last weekend’s crushing defeat against Real Sociedad when they host Almeria at the Nou Camp tonight.
Martino’s men lost top spot with a 3-1 loss against Sociedad, resulting in a bitter heap of criticism being aimed in the direction of Martino and his players.
Today’s Madrid derby ensures Barca will be able to gain ground on at least one of their rivals, and Martino is expecting a positive response to last weekend’s setback, whilst accepting their performance at the Anoeta was below par.
“We didn’t play in the way we should have done, and now we’re obliged to give a lot more,” he admitted. “It’s been a bad week, the same as it always is after a bad result. It’s not just about winning this game – we also have to return to playing the way we did before.”
Despite falling three points behind Real at the top of the standings, Martino pointed out that his players are still in charge of their own destiny as they prepare to travel to the Bernabeu later this month before hosting Atletico on the final day of the season.
“The league title is still in our hands but we need to win all our matches,” he said. “The team is very self-critical, both the players and the coaching staff, and that’s why I have complete confidence in a good reaction.”
With defender Jordi Alba back in action following injury, Martino can call upon a full squad for tonight’s meeting with relegation threatened Almeria.
And on a personal level, he shrugged off speculation that Barca are already searching for a new coach to replace him, saying: “I’m not going to analyse what’s being said, whether good or bad. I have to concentrate on my job.”
Carlo Ancelotti has demanded his Real team plays with “courage and personality” in today’s crucial derby with Atletico Madrid.
With Los Blancos entering the weekend three points ahead of both their local rivals and faltering Barcelona, the game carries significant implications for the title race.
Arguably, a defeat would effectively end Atletico’s dreams of capturing their first title since 1996, while three points for Real would set them up perfectly for the Clasico against Barca at the Bernabeu in three weeks’ time.
Ancelotti, however, denied that today’s encounter could allow his team to take a decisive step towards winning the league.
“The season is very long and we still have a lot of games to play,” he said. “It’s an important game but nothing is decisive at the moment.”
Calling upon his players to focus upon their responsibilities at both ends of the pitch, Ancelotti added: “It will be an intense and difficult game, and there will be a lot of pressure but that’s normal for a derby.
“We will try to play our football as well as we can. To beat Atletico we’ll have to play with courage and determination, and give our maximum in defence as well as attack.
“We’re three points ahead so you could say we’re favourites, but they have the advantage of playing at home and everyone knows how their fans help them.”
Ancelotti’s team come into the game in tremendous form, having put together a 27-game unbeaten run since defeat against Barca at the Nou Camp in October and delivering a sensational display to destroy Schalke 6-1 in Wednesday’s Champions League tie.
But Ancelotti, who can call upon a full squad with the exception of long-term injury victim Sami Khedira, warned his team against complacency, saying: “We have to be careful because things can change very quickly in football.
“It’s difficult to win and we have to go from game to game. Right now we’ve got a very important league game and it’s not good to think about winning everything now.”
Atletico boss Diego Simeone, meanwhile, has attempted to reduce the pressure on his players by claiming Real are favourites for the meeting.
Simeone’s men haven’t lost a league game at their Vicente Calderon Stadium all season, but they head into today’s derby with fresh memories of last month’s 2-0 defeat against Real in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final tie, contributing to a morale-deflating 5-0 aggregate loss.
And their Argentine manager said: “The favourites are always the leaders. They are always the best.”
Atletico have struggled in recent weeks, suffering consecutive away defeats against relegation-threatened Almeria and Osasuna, but Simeone claims to be unconcerned by the criticism that has been aimed in his team’s direction.
“The media will always be critical and it’s not worth getting upset about that,” he said. “If you’d said that at the beginning of March we’d be three points behind the leaders, I would have taken it.”
With Manchester City desperate to make amends for the failure of their last Wembley visit, Fernandinho says his side now thrives on the burden of expectation.
The spotlight will again be on the Etihad outfit today when they face Sunderland in the League Cup final – the first part of their audacious attempt to claim four trophies in a campaign.
Similarly red-hot favourites last May when they met Wigan in the FA Cup final, City were beaten 1-0 by a team that ended up being relegated.
Fernandinho, though, was among the new arrivals in the summer who wanted triumph, not tears under “the quiet man”, boss Manuel Pellegrini, whose only trophy during 10 years in European football was the Intertoto Cup with Villarreal in 2004.
“The big teams have pressure to win the titles so it is important because you prepare more, you have more concentration,” he said, echoing the manager’s call for a winning mentality. “The result can be better than if you relax.
“The manager is calm, he is quiet. He is a very good person. He knows the way to do everything in the week, the training, the game as well.
“I think he analyses the team very well. He has a good feeling about the players and he knows the way we need to play and the way we need to defend as well. We have a good relationship so personally I want to win this trophy for him as well.”
Fernandinho, who will rival Javi Garcia for the central midfield spot alongside Yaya Toure, overcame a tough start following a £30 million (Dh184m) move from Shakhtar Donetsk to prove his worth.
His contribution has proved valuable to a side that has scored 118 goals this season and he hailed the influence of Toure.
“I learn a lot of things from him and I am still learning from him because he is an amazing player, an experienced player,” added the Brazilian. “If we play well, the most important thing is the team and if we win trophies as well.
“For me it is about the trophies, not the goals. The goals are important but it will be very important to win the cup this weekend.”
Full-back Pablo Zabaleta was sent off in that loss to Wigan, but will bid to forget that torment by helping City – still in contention for the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League – gain a place in the record books.
“I am looking forward, not back to what happened last season,” he said. “No club has won three competitions inside of England and we have chances to do that – so we will try.
“If we win this trophy the confidence will be even higher for the rest of the season. Everything will be decided in the next two-anda- half months and we have to be focused on what we are doing. If we win on Sunday it will push us to be well prepared for what’s to come.
“We need to learn about last season’s FA Cup final. Probably we had more quality than Wigan but it doesn’t guarantee you win it. Motivation will be huge for Sunderland too.”
The key battles
Vincent Kompany v Jozy Altidore
A potential heavyweight clash could be pivotal to Sunderland’s hopes. Altidore will need to do well with his back to goal if the Black Cats are to get the best out of Johnson and Borini either side of him. Kompany is quick and strong and will be up for the physical battle.
Gael Clichy v Adam Johnson
Johnson has been in great form for the Black Cats this year and he’ll feel as though he’s got a point to prove against his old club. Prefers to operate from the right cutting in on his left foot and Clichy will have his work cut out containing him if he performs to the best of his ability.
Alvaro Negredo v John O'Shea
Negredo has scored goals for fun in the League Cup and an ageing O’Shea will need all of his experience to keep ‘the Beast’ quiet. An all-round centre forward, Negredo, and the supporting Sergio Aguero, will look to expose the old legs of the Irishman and centre-back partner Wes Brown.
>> City are in the final of the competition for only the fourth time in their history; they won two of the previous three visits (1970 & 1976), while losing in 1974. All three matches ended 2-1.
>> Sunderland, who can book a place in Europe if they win the trophy, have made only one previous final appearance, in 1985 – and they lost to 1-0 to Norwich City.
>> The only previous meeting between these teams in the League Cup was in 1980. After a 1-1 draw at Maine Road, Sunderland won the Roker Park replay 1-0.
>> Since 2007 every League Cup winning manager, apart from Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, has lost his job within a year of lifting the trophy.
>> Sunderland have only lost one of their last five matches against today’s opposition, winning three and drawing once.
>> Manchester City have scored 19 goals so far this season in the League Cup, and have conceded just once. The last team to make the final after conceding just once were Chelsea in 2006/07.
>> Sunderland have been shown 19 yellow cards in the League Cup so far this season, a massive 11 more than any other team.