EUROPEAN football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) unearths the value in Saturday night's Copa del Rey final from Madrid.
Barcelona v Alaves | Saturday 20:30 | Sky Sports 2
Luis Enrique is looking to sign-off from Barcelona in style by lifting a ninth trophy in his three-year spell by overcoming Alaves in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday night at the Vicente Calderon.
The ex-Blaugrana midfielder won the treble in his first campaign and a league and cup double in his second season but performances and results have deteriorated this term, putting the pressure on ahead of this capital clash.
Failure to pocket a trophy is almost unheard of in recent years for Barca but the bookies certainly don’t expect Luis Enrique’s troops to fluff their lines here with the defending champions 1/6 (Betfred) to seal victory in 90 minutes and 1/12 (SkyBet) to lift the trophy.
Barcelona have reached the final in six of their past seven seasons and have taken took honours in three of those fixtures. And having bounced back impressively from their humbling Champions League exit to Juventus, it’s almost unthinkable to image the Blaugrana missing out on silverware here.
Barcelona’s impressive recent run
The Catalan crew have won six successive fixtures, scoring three or more goals in each. Although their dramatic comeback win over Eibar on the final day of the La Liga campaign was in vain, it should be remembered that Barca took four points off champions Real Madrid and often performed on the big Spanish stages.
The Blaugrana’s impressive run to the Copa del Rey final saw them overcome Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid whilst on league duty Luis Enrique’s troops triumphed at the Bernabeu, Vicente Calderon, Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and San Mames. That’s some effort.
The defending champions’ forwardline gives them the capacity to obliterate sides; the team struck 116 goals this season – 10 more than Madrid – and that match-winning star quality tends to come to the fore when it matters most.
Catalans missing key crew
However, there are a few lingering concerns for the Camp Nou club. For starters, Luis Suarez and Sergi Roberto are suspended whilst Javier Mascherano – likely to fill in at right-back – is struggling for fitness, as is Gerard Pique.
It means there’ll likely to be a reshuffle in defence and that’s certainly not ideal for a side that have kept their sheets clean in just three of their most recent 15 outings across all competitions.
So whilst I wouldn’t want to oppose Barcelona here, there’s certainly wriggle-room to get involved with generous 2/1 (William Hill) quotes on Barca winning in 90 minutes alongside Both Teams To Score.
Alaves back from the brink
It’s been a fabulous first campaign back in the Spanish top-flight for Alaves. El Glorioso never looked in danger of immediate demotion and have consolidated their La Liga position in mid-table whilst also relishing their underdog role.
Mauricio Pellegrino’s men have triumphed in Barcelona and Villarreal, as well as picking up points from trips to Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao. But their biggest achievement was securing a first-ever Copa del Rey final berth.
Alaves ousted Celta Vigo at the semi-final stage to secure only their second ever cup final – a remarkable achievement for a club that went into amid a financial meltdown and only four years ago were playing in the regionalised, four-division, 80-team, theoretically amateur Segunda Division B.
Following the wild celebrations that followed their semi-final success, Alaves dropped off the pace but Pellegrino’s steadied the ship once more and rediscovered their resilience with the side from Vitoria impressing again with energy and drive – two crucial characterises to their play.
Side notes on Alaves
It’s worth noting that when El Glorioso pocked maximum points at the Camp Nou in September, Barcelona were without Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Suarez and Pique. Pellegrino opted for a five-man defence but in the aftermath of their Copa del Rey semi-final success, they were smashed 6-0 by Barca at their Mendizorrotza home.
Centre-half Victor Laguardia was key in the Camp Nou victory but is a long-term injury casualty meaning Rodrigo Ely should continue to deputise at centre-back alongside Zouhair Feddal Bar Laguardia, the Basques should be close to full-strength with Real Madrid bound left-back Theo Hernandez the star of the show.
It’s true too that Alaves only faced one top-flight opponent en-route to the final – Celta Vigo, the side that knocked Real Madrid out and almost KOed Manchester United in the Europa League. But the Vitorians are no easy meat, concluding their La Liga campaign with the fifth meanest defence.
Asian Handicap approach
Only four of El Glorioso’s losses have arrived by two clear goals – twice against Real Madrid – and I can’t imagine the underdogs will be thrashed here. They’ll be happy to sit back and wait for chances on the break or at set pieces but I’d fancy them to get on the scoresheet and keep this contest competitive.
Alaves with a +2.5 start can be supported on the Asian Handicap market at 7/10 (BetVictor) and that also appeals with only a Barcelona triumph by three or more goals seeing this selection lose.
Barcelona v Alaves – Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score (2/1 William Hill)
Barcelona v Alaves – Alaves +2.5 Asian Handicap (7/10 BetVictor)