Barcelona will attempt to secure the Copa del Rey trophy for the fourth consecutive season with Saturday night’s clash against Sevilla, but the Catalan team’s recent form has been far from convincing.
Here are the main storylines ahead of the game at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
VALVERDE’S MIDFIELD SELECTION DILEMMA
The biggest problem area for Barca in recent weeks has been midfield, with the fatigue of key players such as Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta preventing the team from establishing their usual control over possession and tempo.
Busquets and Iniesta – who is set to announce his departure for a lucrative move to China – are almost certain to start after being rested from the midweek draw at Celta Vigo. But who will join them?
Manager Ernesto Valverde has plenty of options, especially after Ivan Rakitic was given the all-clear following a brief spell on the sidelines with a hand injury.
Big-money signings Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele are also available, along with the greater physical presence of Paulinho and outside bets Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez, and Sergi Roberto unless he is selected at right-back.
It’s likely to be Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic plus one, but if his Plan A isn’t working Valverde will be under pressure to react much more quickly with substitutions than has sometimes been the case.
WILL CILLESSEN BE RUSTY?
Whatever decisions Valverde makes with his outfield players, it is certain that the team’s goalkeeper will be Jasper Cillessen, who serves as the back-up to Marc-Andre ter Stegen in normal circumstances but is promoted to first-choice in the Copa del Rey.
Dutch international Cillessen has performed admirably whenever he has been called upon and is unfortunate to have been denied more regular outings by the excellent form of ter Stegen.
Cillessen last played in a friendly for the Netherlands last months, impressing in a 3-0 victory over Portugal, but that doesn’t compare to the high stakes occasion of a cup final.
And the fact remains that he has not played a minute of competitive football since Barca’s semi-final Copa win against Valencia more than two months ago, and he is therefore in danger of being extremely rusty for this weekend’s showpiece occasion.
The demands on a Barca keeper are considerable, both in terms of maintaining concentration during his team’s long periods of possession and in playing out with his feet from the back, and if Cillessen makes a high-profile mistake it will call into question Valverde’s goalkeeper selection policy.
BEN YEDDER OR MURIEL UP FRONT?
Sevilla have been extremely unpredictable this season, equally capable of winning against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League and suffering an embarrassing 5-1 hammering at tiny Eibar.
However, there are unlucky to be any surprises in the starting eleven named by Italian coach Vincenzo Montella, with rumoured Barcelona target Clement Lenglet anchoring the defence behind a midfield which relies heavily upon the passing skills of Argentine international Ever Banega.
The one big dilemma facing Montella, whose future at the Andalusian club is believed to be under threat following a disappointing league campaign, is the identity of his centre forward.
Colombian international Luis Muriel is one option, with his pace causing Barca all sorts of problems in the recent 2-2 league draw between the teams.
But he has competition from Frenchman Wissam Ben Yedder, who has been Sevilla’s cup-king this season with 13 goals in the Copa del Rey and Champions League – including both in the 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
Muriel is likely to get the nod from the start, but Ben Yedder will be a dangerous option from the bench.
Pep Guardiola believes Andres Iniesta is the “best example” of a footballer young kids can look up to amid speculation the midfield magician will announce his Barcelona exit after Saturday’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla.
The 33-year-old has spent his entire career at the Camp Nou, making well over 600 appearances in a trophy-laden stint, but he has been linked with a move to China at the end of the season.
And Guardiola, a former colleague and coach of the sublime Spanish veteran, put Iniesta among the greatest players of his generation
“I don’t know if it is true so I prefer to wait and see what his decision is – staying in Barcelona or leaving,” said the Manchester City boss when questioned over Iniesta’s future.
“Of course, I wish him all the best. It was a joy for me to be his mate because we played together and then I was his manager.”
The World Cup-winning Spain stalwart was integral to a scintillating period of success under Guardiola from 2008 until 2012, collecting three La Liga titles and two Champions League crowns.
And Guardiola added: “You cannot imagine what has happened with this legacy for Barcelona and Spanish football these 15 years he was there. A masterclass. A top player.
“He is one of the players who understands the game most thoroughly. It is difficult to find one better than him.
“He is a guy who teaches to the young kids how you have to play, how you control the ball – he is the best example you can show.”
The cup would certainly have been third on Barca’s list of priorities only a month ago, but the shattering Champions League defeat to Roma has altered perceptions of what might have otherwise have been a stellar campaign.
Unbeaten in La Liga and virtually certain to win the title, a domestic double may not be enough to remove the lingering disappointment from Rome.
Here, we look at some of the key match facts ahead of the clash at the Wanda Metropolitano.
– Ernesto Valverde’s men have still not tasted defeat in the 2017-18 league season after 33 matches – a new Spanish record.
– Barcelona have hit the woodwork 32 times in La Liga this season (Liverpool recorded 33 in 2010/2011, the most for a team in a single season in the Top 5 European Leagues since 2003).
– After a run of four games without conceding a single goal Barcelona have now conceded 10 in their last six games in all competitions.
– Sevilla haven’t managed a single win since knocking Manchester United out of the Champions League but have scored three goals in two games against Barcelona this season.
– Sevilla are Lionel Messi’s favourite opponent with the Argentine scoring 30 goals in 32 games against Andalusians, his highest total against any other side.