Spain’s two most powerful clubs face off tonight in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals, the 252nd head-to-head clash. The match is played at the Santiago Bernabeu, and Madrid have a number of trump cards.
As fate would have it, the Copa del Rey semi-finals will bring us two new episodes of the famous ‘El Clasico’, the clash of Spanish titans Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. The two rivals will duel tonight at 22:00 for a place in the final round, although the fate of qualification will not be decided today but most likely in the return leg on 5 April.
The Spanish Cup is Real Madrid’s best chance to end the current season with at least one trophy, as the UEFA Champions League is a bit longer and more difficult, and the 7-point gap to leaders Barcelona in the league seems hard to make up, especially as the Catalans have the strongest defence in La Liga.
REAL MADRID’S STRENGTHS AGAINST BARCELONA
Real Madrid are favourites in this first leg from several points of view, the main one being that they will have the support of their own fans, given that the match will be played at the Santiago Bernabeu, a ground where Xavi Hernandez’s side have not won since a year ago, on 20 March 2022, when they looked fabulous and won 4-0. The last game between the two at the Bernabeu was on 16 October, in the 9th round of La Liga, when the hosts won 3-1.
Even the bookmakers see the Carlo Ancelotti-coached team as favourites, as they are coming off 4 wins and a draw in their last 5 games, having an almost perfect form, unlike Barcelona, who in their last 5 games have recorded 2 wins, a draw and two defeats. The irony is that the two defeats are in the very last games played, so the morale of the Catalans is certainly poor.
In the competition, Madrid got past Cacereno 1-0, then also narrowly 3-2 by Villarreal, after the “yellow submarine” had a double lead at half-time, and in the quarter-finals they eliminated rivals from the Spanish capital, Atletico, after winning 3-1, when they were also behind. Barcelona, on the other hand, had a slightly easier run as they eliminated CF Intercity in a 7-goal thriller (4-3), Ceuta (5-0) and Real Sociedad 1-0.
Another reason why Real is the team that has, on paper, the first chance in tonight’s duel is that Xavi won’t be able to rely on 3 of his best players, Ousmane Dembele, Robert Lewandowski and Pedri, all 3 of them suffering from injuries lately. Ancelotti doesn’t have the full squad at his disposal either, he is missing Ferland Mendy and David Alaba, but even so the solutions he has can cover the gaps without any problems, while it is a real challenge for the Catalan staff to find a suitable replacement for the Polish striker, as Rafinha can play instead of Dembele and Frenkie de Jong will most likely be promoted instead of Pedri.
Out of the total of 251 initial encounters, 101 matches have been won by Real Madrid, the Catalans have 98 victories and 52 draws, so the record is slightly in favour of los Blancos, who will try to take advantage of the absences in the opposing camp and gain a sufficient advantage to qualify for the final largely from the first round.
SERGIO BUSQUETS, FACE TO FACE WITH HISTORY
Tonight’s match will have a special significance for Sergio Busquets, as the Barcelona midfielder is expected to start and could mark the 46th El Clasico of his career, an all-time record, as he is now tied for the most El Clasico appearances with his former team-mate Lionel Messi and former rival Sergio Ramos, both currently with Paris Saint-Germain.
Sergio Busquets, who is valued at €5m according to the Transfermarkt website, is still under contract with FC Barcelona until the summer, but even if he does not decide to extend his contract, he will still have two more opportunities to face his Spanish rivals, apart from tonight’s, as Xavi’s side have a second leg and a direct league clash to play on the 19th of this month in the 26th round of La Liga.
So, of the 251 El Clasico appearances, Busquets has played in 45 of them and will become the most experienced player in this historic rivalry, but it remains to be seen whether the impressive milestone he has reached can also be celebrated with a positive result at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Also, if Barcelona prevail, the 34-year-old midfielder will become the footballer who has recorded the most victories in El Clasico, 22 in all, currently tied with Paco Gento, a winger who only played for Real Madrid between 1953 and 1971.