The first of three Clasicos in the space of less than a month takes place on Wednesday night as Barcelona host Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg.
Both clubs would readily admit that the cup comes third on their list of priorities for the season, and respective managers Ernesto Valverde and Santiago Solari have heavily rotated their starting line-ups during the earlier rounds.
However, the high profile of a Clasico contest – and the bragging rights which will inevitably follow – could tempt the coaches to field their strongest possible line-ups at the Camp Nou. But for Barca, the question of whether that will include their key player is the main talking point, and the first of our three big questions ahead of the game.
MESSI OUT, DEMBELE IN?
Barcelona are sweating on the fitness of captain Lionel Messi after the Argentine took a bang to his thigh during the 2-2 draw with Valencia at the weekend, and Valverde – and Messi himself – are being forced to decide whether they are prepared to take any risks or let Messi fully recover for the tough run of games that lie ahead.
The next few weeks will see Barca face tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Real Madrid and Real Betis in La Liga, as well as resuming their Champions League campaign with a last 16 tie against Lyon. Having Messi available for those games is a much bigger priority than taking a gamble to proceed in the Copa del Rey – irrespective of the identity of their semi-final opponents – and it would be a dangerous game if Barca rush back their star man for this first leg.
There is, however, better news on the injury front with the probable return of Ousmane Dembele from an ankle injury and illness which slowed the latter stages of his recovery. Dembele resumed training on Monday and would be a logical natural replacement for Messi on the right.
And Barca’s concerns over heading into a Clasico without Messi will be assuaged by the fact that they did exactly that during the Argentine’s injury absence in October, and still managed to win 5-1 anyway.
SELECTION DILEMMAS IN MIDFIELD BATTLEGROUND
If Messi is able to play, Dembele could be restricted to the bench or positioned on the left wing to replace Philippe Coutinho, who is continuing to struggle for form. In fact, Coutinho could lose his place in the team even if only one of Messi and Dembele are available, with manager Ernesto Valverde weighing up the option of seeking to control the contest by strengthening his midfield.
Barca have generally lined up in a 4-3-3 formation this season, but last year they played plenty of games in a 4-4-2 shape and there is a convincing argument that Arturo Vidal should be selected for his physical capabilities to complement the more technical skills of Arthur, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, while youngster Carles Alena also looks worthy of more playing time.
Madrid boss Solari likewise has plenty of possibilities for his three midfield places, with Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and out-of-favour Isco competing to substitute regular starters Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – especially with Saturday’s league derby trip to Atletico Madrid rapidly approaching.
TWO OUT OF FOUR TO ACCOMPANY BENZEMA
One player surely set to start is Karim Benzema, who has produced some of the best football of his career over the last month. The French forward has always been a silky-smooth contributor to build-up play, but now he is also adding end product by scoring six goals in his last four games.
The bigger question for Solari, however, is who will accompany Benzema on the flanks, with four players – Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez – all available to fill just two places.
Bale has just returned from injury and delivered a disappointing performance in Sunday night’s victory over Alaves, being replaced by Asensio – also coming back after injury – after an hour. But the only way for Bale to regain rhythm and match fitness is by playing, and Solari therefore could well decide this is the ideal stage for the Welshman to follow the path towards full sharpness.
Meanwhile, teen sensation Vinicius is hoping to continue his meteoric rise by playing in El Clasico for the very first time, giving him a first real opportunity to shine on a truly global stage. However, he has played a lot of football in recent weeks, starting the last nine games in a row, so this could also be the opportunity for Solari to rest the youngster – and keep him as a surprise package to spring upon Barca in the second leg or league clash in a few weeks’ time.
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