First-year coaches in need of some Copa clasico consolation

Tonight’s Copa del Rey decider between Barcelona and Real Madrid in Valencia will be very different from their last final meeting.

First-year coaches in need of some Copa clasico consolation

That clash took place amidst the ‘storm of clasicos’ which saw the teams meet four times in 18 days in 2011.

Jose Mourinho’s Madrid then battled their way to the Copa trophy, but Josep Guardiola’s men ultimately took that season’s Champions League and La Liga titles.

This year’s Copa has the look of a potential consolation prize for first year coaches at both Spain’s big two. Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona were knocked out of Europe last week by Atletico Madrid, while Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid are the underdogs against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in their upcoming Champions League semi-final.

Meanwhile Atletico, coached by Mourinho fan Diego Simeone, have stretched clear of both their richer rivals in the La Liga race.

Ancelotti has tried to change a lot in his first campaign at the Bernabeu. Only five of the team beaten in last year’s Copa final by Atletico will start tonight. But more important has been a change in philosophy, with Madrid now confident they can beat Barcelona in a football match not just a battle.

“Barcelona is a team which continues to attack well and control the ball,” Ancelotti said yesterday. “That is their greatest quality. But it is also a quality of my team. And we must control the game through possession. If we have the courage and personality to do that then we can win the game.”

Cristiano Ronaldo headed the extra-time winner three years ago, but knee and thigh injuries means he will be among the 55,000 watching from the Mestalla stands tonight.

In a strange way that could even help Ancelotti’s cause, as the Portuguese is a better goalscorer than he is a team player. His replacement is likely to be 21-year-old playmaker Isco, more suited to a possession-based style.

“Cristiano’s absence makes everyone more motivated,” Ancelotti said. “We have played very well in games he’s missed, worked more, and ran more.”

While Ancelotti has seen his challenge as changing mindsets at the Bernabeu, then Martino has spent his first season as Barcelona coach struggling to manage the decline of the side Guardiola built.

Barca looked a pale shadow of the ‘Pep team’ as they lost to Atletico in Europe last week, and again when being beaten 1-0 by Granada in La Liga on Saturday.

It has all fed a feeling that Martino had lost the faith of fans, directors and even players at the Camp Nou.

Asked yesterday whether his team lacked belief at the moment, ‘Tata’ called for a return to the best days of the past. “We have no problem with spirit,” he insisted. “The issue is a footballing one. Barca are a very transparent team, if we play well, we will win. For a while this team has not just played well, but also won a lot.

“What is being called for is what these players have done before.”

That focus on keeping the ball and attacking is just as well for Barca, who are without first choice goalkeeper Victor Valdes and have serious injury doubts around all three senior centre-backs.

Replacements such as back-up keeper Jose Manuel Pinto, and ex-Arsenal midfielder Alex Song, do not inspire much confidence in Catalonia.

Also coming into question, if carefully, has been the contribution of blaugrana talisman Leo Messi.

Messi has looked upset and frustrated as Barca lost two key games in four days, but Martino yesterday backed him to bounce back to top form.

“When Messi is under a lot of pressure he always comes through,” Martino said.

While a lot has changed since the 2011 final, a fired-up Messi remains a danger to any opponent, and Ronaldo is still a huge loss to any team. So tonight’s Copa final result should also be different from that of three years ago.

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