A week ago, Barcelona still had a chance of repeating the historic treble of 2009 but defeats in Europe and La Liga mean Wednesday’s King’s Cup final against Real Madrid may be their only hope of major silverware this season.
A wounded Barca travel to Valencia to meet their arch rivals after crashing out of the Champions League to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday and suffering a shock 1-0 reverse at Granada in La Liga three days later that left them four points behind leaders Atletico with five games to play.
Real, by contrast, are on a high after joining Atletico in the last four of Europe’s elite club competition and climbing above Barca into second in La Liga, three points off the top, thanks to Saturday’s 4-0 drubbing of Almeria.
Barca coach Gerardo Martino needs to lift his battered troops for the showpiece at the Mestalla, the venue where Real beat Barca 1-0 in the 2011 final thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s headed goal in extra time.
The record Cup winners with 26 to Real’s 18, Barca have had the upper hand against their rivals in La Liga this season, winning 2-1 at the Nou Camp in October and 4-3 at the Bernabeu last month.
However, Martino has come in for some heavy criticism after recent stumbles and the Argentine will have to shoulder the blame and suffer the consequences if he ends his first year in charge without any trophies apart from the season-opening Spanish Super Cup.
His side have generally managed to dominate opponents in customary fashion but have consistently failed to turn long periods of possession into goals, particularly on the road against defence-minded teams.
Talismanic Argentina captain Lionel Messi has gone off the boil just when Barca needed his sublime skills the most, while Brazil forward Neymar has blown hot and cold since his high-profile move from Santos in the close season.
“It’s clear that the Cup is fundamental for us,” sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, who has been widely criticised for not bringing in sufficient squad reinforcements, said on Spanish radio on Sunday.
Zubizarreta defended Messi, who has been accused of not putting in 100 percent effort for Barca so he is fresher for the World Cup finals starting in June.
“There is nothing wrong with him (Messi),” Zubizarreta said.
“He is fine with the club and with his team mates. His problem is that he has set the bar so high for himself,” added the former Barca and Spain goalkeeper.
“He is happy, training well, in good physical shape. But he knows that football throws up challenges every week.”
Wednesday’s match features two teams whose focus is on attack and it should be an open, entertaining spectacle between the world’s two richest clubs by income.
It will be their 34th meeting in the Spanish Cup since they first clashed in May 1902.
Barca have won 15, including a 3-1 success in that first game, drawn seven and lost 11.
Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose team have not conceded a single goal in eight games on the way to the final, is sweating on the fitness of top scorer Ronaldo, who has missed Real’s last two matches with knee and thigh muscle complaints.
Barca’s main injury worries are in defence, with centre backs Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Marc Bartra all sidelined, and Sergio Busquets may be drafted in to play in the middle alongside Javier Mascherano, another converted midfielder.
Zubizarreta said there was a chance Pique, who has not played since damaging a hip in the Champions League on April 1, could make it back for Wednesday’s game.