By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona can ease the lingering pain of their Champions League elimination by cementing their domestic dominance and winning a second successive league and Cup double when they take on Valencia in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final.
But with Ernesto Valverde’s side ravaged by injuries and their form dipping in the last month while Valencia are on an upward curve, the Cup holders are set for a far tougher test to retain the trophy than in recent years.
Second-top scorer Luis Suarez is recovering from knee surgery and 105-million-euro forward Ousmane Dembele is unlikely to make it back from a hamstring injury, depriving captain Lionel Messi of his usual attacking partners.
Record signing Philippe Coutinho is expected to come back from injury in time for the game, although his woeful form means his return does not necessarily boost Barca’s chances of winning a record-extending fifth consecutive Copa del Rey.
Jasper Cillessen — the team’s designated goalkeeper in Cup games — is in shaky form after making two costly errors in the 2-2 draw at Eibar last week and first choice Marc-Andre ter Stegen is injured.
The Catalans’ scrappy performance against Eibar was the latest episode of a haggard final stretch of the season which hit a nadir with the 4-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield that wrecked Barca’s hopes of reaching the Champions League final.
According to midfielder Ivan Rakitic, the cloud of the 4-3 aggregate defeat, after a 3-0 win in the semi-final first leg, is still hanging over the La Liga champions.
“To a degree we are still affected by it, no-one felt worse about the defeat than we did but now is the time to move on,” Rakitic told newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
“I wish I could explain what happened at Anfield, but sometimes in sport things happen which you can’t explain.
“It’s no use saying we should learn from it, but we have to make sure it brings us together. Football has given us another tough lesson but we must put it behind us and prepare for the Cup final and next season.”
Valencia have drawn both games against Barca this season and overcame a rusty first half of the campaign to sneak into the top four in La Liga and earn a Champions League berth by winning seven of their final 10 matches.
Now they are targeting a first major trophy since 2008 to celebrate their centenary year.
“It has not been easy, we’ve overcome many difficult situations this season to qualify for the Champions League and now it’s a weight off our backs and we’re motivated for the final,” said Valencia winger Goncalo Guedes.
“We will study Barcelona’s weak points, they don’t have many, but they have some, and we’re going to try and make the most of them.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)