Cup Clasico Tests Madrid Resurgence and Offers Redemption
One hundred days will split the last Clasico from the latest one and for Real Madrid the prize in the rematch is more than a place in the Copa del Rey final.
When they trudged off the Camp Nou in October, the big screens above them flashed 5-1 to Barcelona, with Luis Suarez scoring three and without Lionel Messi at all, their best player injured and sitting in the stands.
The next day Julen Lopetegui was sacked, owing to what the club said was a "great disproportion between the quality of the staff of Real Madrid and results." Barca were top of La Liga, Madrid ninth.
There will be little comfort then for Madrid that Messi could be missing again on Wednesday, a niggle in his thigh leaving coach Ernesto Valverde, and Messi, with a decision to make.
If Messi plays - and Valverde was optimistic on Sunday - it will be because he is fit. Barcelona have indicated they will not risk their captain with a grueling month ahead.
The 2-2 draw at home to Valencia last weekend means their lead in La Liga is six points over Atletico Madrid and eight over Real, but with games away to Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and then Real in the next four weeks, there is little room for complacency.
Dotted between are two legs against Lyon in the Champions League, the holy grail for Barcelona this season, and perhaps the one trophy they really crave after years of underachievement.
Last month, Messi even had to reject claims they would be better off out of the Copa del Rey.
"It was said that we had given up in the cup, that we didn't want it," he said. "But in no way is this the case."
The fervor of any meeting with Real Madrid dictates it cannot be taken lightly. As Barca's stirring comeback against Sevilla in the quarter-finals showed, the players picked will not be holding back.
But for the club, and their season, it is possible Barcelona need this match less than their opponents.
Revenge is one thing. Madrid's hammering in the autumn was the final humiliation at the end of a miserable run but their trajectory, despite a dip at the start of the year, has been generally upward since.
"It was a complicated time for them psychologically," said Valverde, after the semi-final draw. "Now they are in a different moment."
This is a chance for Madrid to wrestle back momentum. They will hope that beating Barcelona over two legs, even in the Copa del Rey, can knock them out of their stride.
- 'Phenomenally well' -
After Real's win over Alaves on Sunday, Santiago Solari said his team were ready to fight. He has played up the spirit in the camp and there have been some impressive performances to back it up, most notably against Sevilla.
"The spirit is like a family," Solari said. "I think they are doing phenomenally well."
But as coach, this is Solari's biggest test. He has put his faith in youth but how might Alvaro Odriozola, Sergio Reguilon and, in particular, Vinicius Junior handle their first Clasico, at the Camp Nou?
Gareth Bale was quiet against Alaves but could he follow Isco and Marcelo as the next big name made to fight for his place?
"I see Gareth focused, connected and plugged in," Solari said last week. "I want him to perform how he knows he can."
Solari's own future is on the line too. He has a contract until 2021 but his position is likely to be reviewed in the summer, when blockbuster games like these will surely spring quickest to the mind of president Florentino Perez.
A domestic trophy would certainly help Solari's case. Barcelona have won the Copa del Rey in each of the last four seasons, even if its prestige now pales in comparison to the league and Champions League. For Real, there is more than just the cup at stake.