Barcelona desperate to dispel despondency with ‘El Clasico’ win


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Barcelona and Real Madrid fans have been arriving in Spain’s third biggest city, Valencia, for tonight’s Copa del Rey final. More than 20,000 fans from each club will be there, though they’ll be directed to fan areas well away from each other and the majority won’t see their main foe until they enter the towering Mestalla.

Valencia’s new stadium remains half built, with construction paused four years ago due to financial problems, but the Mestalla, with its steep, open stands remains a formidable, if ageing, venue.

It’s likely to be Barcelona’s last chance to save their season. They’ve seen their campaign almost fall apart in four days, with elimination from the Champions League to an Atletico Madrid side, who finally broke the stalemate of draws with a victory. And, against a Granada side fighting relegation who hadn’t beaten them for 42 years, Barça lost the chance to keep the league title in their own hands.

Had they won their remaining six games, they would have retained the title. Now they’re four points behind Atletico, whom they meet on the final day of the season on May 18th. The defeat in Andalusia was their fourth league defeat in 12 games since February. Before that they’d lost once in 21.

Cules are livid. Coach Tata Martino is unlikely to be in charge next season. Players were abused by their own fans as they returned to collect their cars after the defeat at Granada, with Neymar attracting racist abuse.

Even Lionel Messi hasn’t been spared, with critics claiming that he’s more interested in the World Cup finals than playing for Barça after a couple of poor performances. It’s true that he barely ran in the Calderón last week, but you’d have thought that the world’s best player would have built up a sufficient bank of credit among fans to avoid such abuse so quickly. Not so.

Madrid have reached the final without conceding a single goal in ten games. They also did what no other team has achieved to their neighbours Atletico, destroying them 5-0 over two semi-final encounters. With justification, Atletico are the team of the moment, yet Madrid could still win the treble of the league, cup and the much-vaunted decima – a tenth European Cup.

The media coverage of the invasion of Valencia is biased, depending on the source. One Madrid paper reported how the number of fans greeting the Madrid team at the airport was three times the number of Barça fans. Or 300 vs 100 for a less spectacular slant. Even in Spain, most people have work to do, rather than going to an airport on a Tuesday afternoon to greet a football team.

The two teams are staying 700 metres apart, the seventh time they’ve met in a domestic cup final. The last was in 2011 – again at the Mestalla during a period of four clasicos in an 18-day period full of anger, recrimination and pernicious bile delivered from fans, players and coaches. Which is exactly how José Mourinho liked it.

Having won the previous four matches, Pep Guardiola’s outstanding Barça were clear favourites and Mourinho had to try to get under the skin of his opponents as he attempted to win Madrid’s first trophy in four years.

Mourinho had tried to be bold in his tactics in a league game earlier that season at Camp Nou. And his side lost 5-0. Stung by the humiliation, Madrid tried everything in subsequent clasico matches. They let the grass grow at the Bernabéu to try to stifle Barça’s quick passing game and were more cautious tactically, but they still couldn’t win.

That changed in Valencia when a headed Cristiano Ronaldo goal in injury time decided the tie. It didn’t finish Barça’s cycle of success as Madrid fans hoped; they won the Champions League a month later at Wembley.

Ronaldo is unlikely to be rushed back from injury to play tonight. Barça have severe injury issues of their own in the area they can least afford them – central defence. Gerard Piqué is still injured and Mark Bartra too and, while Carles Puyol said he’s prepared to play in what would be his last major game for the club he’s served so well, Javier Mascherano and Adriano are likely to start at the back.

Barça have beaten Madrid in both league meetings this season. They look at their weakest, but then Madrid were strongly fancied when the sides met last month at the Bernabéu, especially as they’d gone 32 games unbeaten. And Barça won 4-3 in the most thrilling football match of 2014 so far.

The 2011 encounter wasn’t the only Valencia meeting for the clubs. After 33 cup finals, Barça and Madrid finally met a month before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. It’s remembered for a save by legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, who, in his final game for the club, dived to his bottom left corner to keep a shot out from Barça’s star player Josep Escolà. Zamora played for the Catalans in the 1920s.

They didn’t meet again in a cup final until 1968, this time at the Bernabéu. The venue had been selected before the teams reached the final, which Barça won 1-0 thanks to a ridiculous own goal. Madrid’s supporters were furious at the referee and launched hundreds of bottles onto the pitch. It led directly to bottles being banned inside Spanish football stadiums and is known as the ‘bottles’ final. Asked for his memories of the game, Madrid’s centre-back Ignacio Zoco simply said: “Bad.”

In the 1974 final at Atletico’s Calderón, Madrid won 4-0. That came only three months after Barça beat Madrid 5-0 in February 1974, with Johan Cruyff (soon after turning down Madrid), playing in his first game for Barça in the Bernabéu, where he scored one and set up three in a 5-0 rout. Madridistas refer to it as the Black Night, Cruyff as the best month in his life.

Barcelona won the 1983 final 2-1, when Diego Maradona ran onto a 60-yard pass by Bernd Schuster, stopped it, throwing his two markers, then rolled the ball to set up Barça’s opening goal for Victor Muñoz.

Santillana equalised for Madrid before Marcos got a winner for Barcelona, prompting the German Schuster to celebrate rigorously with an ‘up yours’ gesture. Catalans loved it, Madrid accused him of incitement.

When the pair next met it was 1990 and Schuster was the only survivor from the 1983 match – only this time he played for Madrid. The game was spoiled by the sending off of Madrid’s Fernando Hierro in the first half. Schuster smelled injustice and accused the referee of taking a bribe.

During their lap of honour, Barça goalkeeper (and current sporting director) Andoni Zubizarreta was felled by a missile thrown from the crowd.

Under-pressure Zubizarreta will be there again this evening. He needs a win now more than ever to change the despondency around the club. And what better way to do that than by beating Real Madrid?

By Andy Mitten - on Twitter @AndyMitten

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