No room for error as Barca face Sevilla in Copa del Rey final
Barcelona and Sevilla will know the success of their respective seasons is on the line when they go head to head in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday.
The Cup would certainly have been third on Barca's list of priorities only a month ago, but the shattering Champions League defeat to Roma has altered perceptions of what might have otherwise have been a stellar campaign.
Unbeaten in La Liga and virtually certain to win the title, a domestic double may not be enough to remove the lingering disappointment from Rome, particularly if arch rivals Real Madrid clinch their third consecutive European crown.
"I live with a little anxiety," Barca midfielder Philippe Coutinho said Thursday. "But it is a very important and very happy moment, playing a final only two or three months after arriving."
Another surprise loss this weekend would certainly settle the argument, even if it seems strange to declare a team under pressure six days after they marked the longest unbeaten run in La Liga history.
In moulding his team around organisation, hard work and the irrepressible Lionel Messi, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has steered this team away from the club's more free-flowing, attacking traditions.
He has proven a master of extraction, drawing the very best from a squad that unexpectedly lost one of its star strikers in Neymar last summer, and owns far less talent than its predecessors.
Sevilla have fewer questions to answer in terms of entertaintment. Since Vincenzo Montella took charge in December, they have beaten Atletico Madrid, twice, Manchester United and drawn with Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
They have also conceded five goals at home to Real Betis and lost to minnows Alaves, Eibar and Leganes. In their draw against Barca, they shipped two goals in the 87th and 89th minutes.
"We know how they play, that they have quality and a fast counter-attack," Coutinho said. "The most important thing is to think about ourselves, how we have to play and what we should do to win."
Sitting seventh in the table and 17 points adrift of the top four, a trophy -- particularly with a win over Barca -- would diminish a disappointing league position and enhance their run to the Champions League quarter-finals. Lose, and there will be little left to cling onto.
"We have a great opportunity to win a title for the club," Sevilla midfielder Pablo Sarabia said. "We have to think about the good things from this season.
"It is true we have not been consistent in the league but in the Champions League we have made history and in the cup we have the opportunity to lift a trophy."
While Barca, the defending champions, are chasing their 30th Copa del Rey triumph in the Wanda Metropolitano stadium's first tournament final, Sevilla are bidding to win their sixth, and first since 2010.
Barca fans are expected to jeer Spain's national anthem before kick-off amid ongoing political unrest between Catalonia and the Spanish government.
"I'm not going to say anything," Valverde said. "I just want the players to respect each other."
Atletico Madrid, who remain 12 points behind Barca in second place after a chastening 3-0 defeat at Real Sociedad on Thursday, will look to make amends at home to fifth-placed Real Betis on Sunday while Celta Vigo and Valencia face off on Saturday.
Valencia sit three points behind Real Madrid, who will be using their well-timed weekend off to prepare for the first leg of Wednesday's Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Leganes v Deportivo La Coruna (2000)
Eibar v Getafe (1200), Celta Vigo v Valencia (1515)
Girona v Espanyol (1100), Malaga v Real Sociedad (1515), Las Palmas v Alaves (1730), Atletico Madrid v Real Betis, (1945)
Athletic Bilbao v Levante (2100)
© 2018 AFP