Match Preview & Team News
Thursday evening's Copa del Rey semi final second leg between Valencia and Barcelona will decide which of the two sides will meet Getafe in the final on the 16th April. A stoppage time goal from Xavi salvaged a 1-1 draw for Barcelona after David Villa had given Valencia the lead in the first leg at the Camp Nou a fortnight ago.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Barcelona's season is all but over considering all the doom and gloom that engulfs the Catalan club right now. However, Barcelona are still in with a chance of a trophy treble: they travel to the Mestalla with this semi final tie very much in the balance, they have avoided one of the 'favourites' in the Champion's league quarter final draw and they could still catch Real Madrid in the race for the La Liga title.
Unfortunately for Frank Rijkaard, the majority seem to believe that Barcelona are more likely to finish the season trophy-less for the second consecutive season rather than having to make room for a trio in the trophy cabinet. And while the Copa del Rey represents the most realistic chance of winning anything at all, the prospect hardly has the Catalans stockpiling fridges full of Cava.
No one is really convinced by Barcelona at the moment and that's because Barcelona have been so, um, unconvincing. Consequently, Rijkaard and his team go in to tonight's semi final under intense scrutiny and with everyone of them aware that their long term futures at the club is less than assured.
Barcelona's recent form - two Liga defeats and a frustrating draw with Almeria since the first leg - means that Rijkaard is really feeling the heat as the press start to scent blood. The Dutchman's position is further undermined by events away from the playing field as well, with the media questioning whether he has any control over a dressing room that increasingly resembles the self destructive complacency and arrogance of Madrid's 'Galactico' implosion.
There is even the suggestion that the players can't even be bothered to play for their coach anymore. Ronaldinho, struggling for form throughout the season, missed last weeks 2-2 draw with Almeria due to a 'muscle problem.' It has since been confirmed that the player isn't actually injured at all and this has fuelled speculation in the local press that the 27 year old Brazilian was dropped as punishment for not turning up to training after a night out - or even that Ronaldinho just can't actually be bothered.
A lack of motivation is not usually a criticism that is levelled at Samuel Eto'o and in typical fashion, the Barcelona striker has come out fighting: dismissing any talk of complacency.
"Our lives are at stake in Valencia." said Eto'o at a yesterdays press conference.
"This is a very important game of the season for us because we are so close to our dream of winning the Copa del Rey.
"We will be humble going to Valencia and ready to die on the pitch." said the player, forgetting to add that that doesn't include Ronaldinho, because his leg hurts a bit.
If Barcelona have any cause for optimism ahead of tonight's cup clash, it should be because they are facing Valencia who, it is fair to say, are in a considerably worse state than Barcelona at the moment. Where Barcelona's recent form might be described as indifferent, then Valencia' s would best be described as disastrous.
Ronald Koeman's side are without a win in six games in all competitions, they have won just two La Liga matches in 2008, they sit nine points adrift of sixth placed Espanyol in La Liga and are just four points above the relegation zone.
It would normally be said that Ronald Koeman is fighting for his job tonight, but one suspects that with his side in collapse, his President and only supporter resigning and his most influential players wishing him all manner of unpleasant fates - it's probably safe to say that Koeman won't be around for very much longer, regardless of tonight's result.
However, this does not make this semi final tie a foregone conclusion. The Copa Del Rey represents Valencia's only realistic chance of coming out of this season with any dignity whatsoever and the players will sense that they are only ninety minutes away from a cup final. The way Valencia played in the first leg is testimony to the fact that, while the league may be a lost cause, the players can still muster up a performance when they want to.
Barcelona were dominant in possession at the Camp Nou, but Valencia resembled something of their old selves and looked defensively solid while capable of inflicting damage on the break. With a vital away goal under their belt, the home side will tonight look for a repeat performance against a Barcelona side that will have to go on the offensive.
Ronaldinho, as expected, has not made the trip; although Rijkaard has defended him saying that "he wants to play - he's just not ready."
Barcelona's other injury absentees include Oleguer, Deco, Messi, Gio Dos Santos, Rafa Marquez and Santi Ezquerro. The good news for the Blaugrana is that Toure Ya Ya has been declared fit and will replace Edmilson in midfield, while Zambrotta returns after serving a one match ban.
Probable starting XI :
Valdés; Zambrotta, Puyol, Milito, Abidal; Touré, Xavi, Gudjohnsen; Iniesta, Henry and Etoo.
Vicente has not made the squad as he continues to battle with persistent and countless injuries; while Alexis is close to a return after a four month lay off but is not considered match fit just yet.
The good news for Koeman is that Éver Banega has overcome a muscle strain that kept him out of last weekend’s defeat to Sevilla. Defenders Marco Caneira and Iván Helguera were doubtful, picking up knocks in training, but have also been included in the squad list. Nikola Žigić and Stephen Sunny have both been left out of the 18 man squad for 'technical reasons'.
Probable Starting XI:
Hildebrand ; Albiol, Miguel, Marchena, Moretti; Maduro, Banega, Joaquín (Arizmendi), Silva, Mata; Villa