Depth to be tested by Copa Clasicos
This Wednesday brings the latest in the absorbing series of Clásico clashes between Madrid and Barcelona: a Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg at Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
The tie is eagerly awaited by fans of both Madrid and Barcelona, as well as many neutrals; however, both clubs would perhaps prefer if the draw had not brought them together at just this moment. Madrid captain Iker Casillas let slip last week that so many Clásicos so close together (these two bring the total to nine in just eleven months) made each game descafeinado or diluted. Coaches José Mourinho and Josep Guardiola have both stressed that Copa is third on their list of priorities, well behind La Liga and the Champions League.
The timing of the games - towards the end of a hectic January schedule - is particularly awkward. Both face tricky league games next weekend, with Barca visiting big-spending Qatari-owned Málaga while Madrid host Marcelo Bielsa’s in-form Athletic Bilbao. The second leg the following Wednesday at the Camp Nou will be the seventh fixture for both in just 22 days, a run which is testing the squad depth of each squad.
Mourinho told reporters on Jan. 2 that no player would play every minute of Madrid’s matches this month.
“We are going to try and divide the effort between the players,” he said. “In January we have four league games, two in the cup against Málaga, and maybe then two more in the quarter-finals. The idea is to always play a strong team but make rotations, be balanced and for no player to play each game.”
That idea made sense at the time, but Mourinho has since been unable or unwilling to risk many changes to his first choice XI. Madrid's three key men - Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo - have played every minute since Christmas, with both outfield players performing well below their best. The Portuguese boss would perhaps prefer to rotate more, but he clearly lacks faith in Spanish international defender Raúl Albiol and home grown midfielder Esteban Granero, while former Bundesliga stars Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop are apparently considered not ready or not good enough to come in.
At 0-1 down in Mallorca on Saturday night, with Alonso struggling to make an influence, Madrid’s midfield clearly needed reinforcement. Sahin and Granero remained on the bench as Mourinho preferred to throw on all his attacking players and trust their individual quality would prevail. The plan worked, with Gonzalo Higuaín equalizing before José Callejón fired in a late winner, but the message that Real's back-up midfielders could not be relied upon was clear.
Barcelona coach Guardiola is also currently working with unexpectedly limited resources. His currently available outfield first team squad numbers just 13, due to new injuries to Pedro Rodríguez and Andréu Fontas, the sale of Maxwell to Paris St Germain, and the temporary exit of Mali midfielder Seydou Keita to the African Cup of Nations.
The Catalan side have rotated more than their Castillian rivals, however, with no player starting all four games since Christmas. To do this, Guardiola has turned to his youth team, with Barca Bs Martín Montoya, Isaac Cuenca and Sergi Roberto all starting the Copa second leg in Osasuna last Thursday, the latter even scoring the winner. “We will stick with these players to the end,” said Guardiola in his press conference before Sunday’s 4-2 La Liga win over Real Betis. “It is not a good idea to look to the transfer market, because new players have to settle in and it costs money. The reserves are the cheapest, most productive and sustainable solution."
It will be a surprise if either coach does not choose the strongest available line-up for Wednesday's game (allowing for Guardiola’s policy of always fielding reserve goalkeeper José Pinto in the Copa). Mourinho needs the morale boost that a win over Barca would bring, meaning Ángel Di María goes straight back into the team after a few days training and Alonso and Ronaldo will have to soldier on, for now. For his part, Guardiola is unlikely to ask Xavi, Puyol or Messi if they wouldn’t mind sitting out a Clásico.
Given the stresses and strains within both squads, though, the first-leg starting XIs are unlikely to make it to the end of the tie unscathed. And Barca look better set to cope with any eventuality. Should something happen to Xavi, Thiago Alcántara - a starter in last December's FIFA World Club Cup final - knows what to do. The idea of the overworked Alonso getting injured and the undercooked Sahin coming in is much less comfortable for Madrid fans to consider.
Nobody can be sure how Mourinho's men might react to yet another loss to their most bitter rivals, and a negative result could have knock-on effects for the remainder of the campaign, both in La Liga and the Champions League. Casillas' fears that the Copa draw has not been kind to his club may be bear out.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.