Madrid, Barcelona prepare for battle

With the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg looming over everyone at Real Madrid and Barcelona there was a feeling of ennui about Saturday’s La Liga games. Coaches Jose Mourinho and Tito Vilanova rested many first teamers; those players who started began slowly and soon fell behind; and finally both sides did just enough to win.

Barcelona sits 16 points ahead in the league, and the fact is, that lead has made La Liga matches fade in importance. The main focus for everyone in Spain is on Tuesday night’s game Camp Nou, a match in the balance after a 1-1 in the first game in Madrid earlier this month. Both teams are also wary of their upcoming Champions League matches where both Barca [0-2 down to Milan] and Madrid [1-1 vs. Manchester United] face tough tasks to qualify.

Madrid began first on Saturday, with Mourinho naming just three of his strongest side away at La Liga’s bottom team Deportivo la Coruña. Los Blancos promptly played like a second-string, falling behind to Riki’s thumping strike, and looking low on ideas and motivation for almost an hour. Mourinho reacted by bringing on the big guns – Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira – and Madrid overran their opponents in the end, winning 2-1 with late goals from Kaká and Gonzalo Higuaín.

Kaká’s contribution drew most attention in the Madrid press on Sunday morning. The Brazilian, who almost left Madrid in January, scored his side’s equalizer and played the defense-splitting pass which helped Ronaldo assist Higuaín’s winner. He told reporters he hoped that had put him forward for a starting spot on Tuesday.

“In football everything changes quickly,” Kaká said. “What is coming is exciting – the decisive part of the season. I am here to help if the boss wants me.”

Less helpful ahead of Tuesday was yet another red card for Madrid – Angel Di María’s was its eighth in 13 games in 2013 – as well as further evidence that former Tottenham playmaker Luka Modric cannot play Xabi Alonso’s ‘quarter-back’ midfield role. Modric was yet again anonymous against Depor, and one of those hauled off by Mourinho after just 56 minutes.

So Alonso, hoping to recover from a groin injury in time for the Copa, is vital to Madrid’s hopes against both Barcelona and United. Speaking last Thursday the Basque midfielder said he was working hard to get back in time.

“People keep asking when I will be ready,” he said. “I hope to be able to play against Barca, but I cannot answer right now.”

One Madrid player who always answers is Ronaldo. Without the Portuguese superstar on the pitch Madrid were toothless – but once he arrived Depor were doomed and his unselfish sideways pass served up the winner for Higuaín on a plate. Madrid could possibly win without Alonso on Tuesday, but without Ronaldo they would have no chance.

Before Ronaldo had even hit the showers in La Coruña, Barca had kicked off at home to Sevilla. It also rested many stars, and was also behind 1-0 at half-time. Alberto Botía’s header for Sevilla meant a goal conceded for an eleventh consecutive game – Barca’s worst record for over a decade.

Its defensive play is not good right now, stand-in coach Jordi Roura admitted afterwards. “Our intention is to not concede,” said Roura, bluntly. “We let one in after a series of avoidable errors. We are working on that.”

Its ability to work on these mistakes has not been helped by Vilanova’s continuing absence, as he receives medical treatment in New York, and reportedly makes decisions via text message during games. But whoever decided to change things at half-time against Sevilla made a good call.

Zippy youngster Cristian Tello replaced the misfiring Alexis Sanchez on the wing, and experienced poacher David Villa moved centrally, from where he almost immediately headed his side’s equalizer.

Villa, so unhappy with his secondary role that he almost moved to Arsenal in January, still had a key role to play for Barcelona, said Roura.

“We always said he was a decisive player for us,” he said. “He has a chance, as has Tello, to play against Madrid. There could be changes. We have decisions to make.”

Whatever is decided, Messi will surely not be as quiet on Tuesday as he was in Milan last week. The Argentine, whose winning goal from Tello’s pass means he has now scored in 15 consecutive La Liga games, said he was looking forward to meeting Madrid.

“I feel good,” Messi said. “The more games the better. We have important challenges coming. I want to score goals so they go well.”

By Tuesday the questions raised in recent games will be answered. And the real battles will begin.