Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona have well and truly turned their fortunes around since the dawn of the new year. The Catalan outfit are starting to look increasingly like a ruthlessly efficient, well-oiled machine. It seems as though they are finally leaving behind the husk of a once mellow, frail and dejected group of players.
Since the beginning of 2021, Barcelona have not lost a single game in La Liga, winning 12 of the 13 that they have played. Due to their remarkable run of form and Atletico Madrid’s rate of picking up points slowly but surely dropping, the race for the La Liga title is hotting up massively. Real Madrid are silently keeping up the pace in third place, just two points behind the Blaugrana.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the upcoming El Clasico on 11th April. A match that will most likely hand a massive edge to the victors in the context of the title race. Naturally, then both sides will have to ensure their best available players step onto the Bernabeu for this crucial encounter.
Things aren’t completely that straightforward for Barcelona, however. Once the international break draws to a close, Barcelona will first host Real Valladolid before their trip to the capital. The dilemma that presents itself concerns two of the Azulgranas’ key players this season — Lionel Messi and Frenkie De Jong.
Both are currently on four yellow cards, just one booking away from a game’s suspension. Ahead of their matchup against Los Blancos Barcelona cannot afford either of the pair to miss out. Messi and De Jong have been in spectacular form, with the former scoring 19 goals for Barça since January of 2021 rolled around.
De Jong has also found remarkable consistency in his new roles under Ronald Koeman. First operating higher up the pitch in midfield and now also as the central defender in Koeman’s back three filling in during Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo’s absences.
This begs the question of whether or not Messi and De Jong should be risked against Valladolid with the Clasico looming ahead. Naturally, Barcelona will look to maintain their winning run and more importantly, they cannot afford to drop points either because, albeit slimmer, Diego Simeone’s men still hold an advantage at the top of the table.
Considering the impact of the international break, Lionel Messi will be in ideal physical shape to feature. Since the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers were suspended, the Argentine maestro was left with plenty of time to rest. Having a fully fit Lionel Messi is always a massive boost to Barcelona. In recent years they have shown a worrying amount of reliance on the superstar to bail them out of tight situations.
However, the big benefit of this new-look Barça side seems to be their cohesion as a unit without relying on a single player to make things happen. This, of course, means that resting him is feasible.
When it comes to Frenkie De Jong, however, things are more complicated. If he is to reassume his role in defence or even in midfield, for that matter, the odds of him being booked are much higher than those of Messi receiving another yellow. The risk factor is higher. Additionally, the Dutchman has played four games in the space of nine days after his outing vs Gibraltar, featuring in all three of the Netherlands’ World Cup qualifiers during the International Break. This then brings the issue of fatigue into play, which is another hazardous prospect that is best avoided.
To sum up, Barcelona have more than enough quality and determination to get the better of Valladolid without having to endanger Messi and De Jong’s El Clasico prospects. It would be ideal if both of them are rested.
If one of them has to play, Ronald Koeman can always bring Messi off the bench if he were to need some inspiration. De Jong being entirely rested, though, would be the most viable option given all of Barcelona’s other in-form midfield options. He could benefit from the rest, and Koeman will not need to fret about the Dutchman for the clash against the Galacticos.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.