Spanish football returns with Copa del Rey

Real Madrid and Barcelona can set the stage for another pair of

”clasicos” by beating Malaga and Osasuna when Spanish football

returns from its annual winter break this week with the Copa del

Rey’s round of 16.

Madrid and Barcelona both play their first leg at home, and big

victories there would all but end their opponents’ hopes of pulling

off an upset in the return match.

Strong results for the Spanish giants would also set up another

likely matchup between them later this month, as the winners will

meet in the two-legged quarterfinals of the cup competition.

Malaga hasn’t beaten Madrid since its return to regular first

division football in 1999, while Osasuna will face a Barcelona side

that has won its last five matches at the Camp Nou by a combined

score of 26-0.

Malaga’s ambitious owners have gone on a spending spree lately

to buy players in a bid to see the Andalucian club compete at the

top of the table, but Madrid has won the last three meetings

between the sides by a combined score of 15-1 going into Tuesday’s

game.

”We hope for a good result, which is not to lose and to score

goals,” Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini said on Monday. ”If we

can’t win, a draw, and if we are going to lose we’ll score goals

and not just sit in our backfield looking to defend.”

Madrid, which beat Barcelona in last year’s final, will likely

be without injured players Angel di Maria, Sergio Ramos and Ricardo

Carvalho, while Malaga remains without Brazilian striker Julio

Baptista and winger Joaquin Sanchez. In-form winger Jose Callejon

is expected to fill in for Di Maria, while either Raul Albiol or

Rafael Varane can replace Ramos if the Spain international doesn’t

recover from a leg injury in time to play at the Santiago Bernabeu

stadium.

”Di Maria’s absence will affect them some,” Cazorla said.

”But whoever plays, it’s going to be a complicated match.”

Barcelona, meanwhile, has 12 wins and two draws in 14 games at

the Camp Nou this season, where it has outscored opponents 59-4. It

already beat Osasuna 8-0 on home soil this season.

Lionel Messi’s availability is questionable as the Argentine

forward did not train with the team on Monday after just returning

from a winter holiday. But several injured players did return to

training and could be available on Wednesday, including Andres

Iniesta, Alexis Sanchez, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Seydou

Keita.

Osasuna is in good form and has climbed to a surprising fifth

place in the league after going unbeaten in its last seven games, a

streak that includes four wins.

”We know what can happen. (But) what matters to us is

Osasuna,” Brazil fullback Adriano said Monday of the clasico

possibility. ”If it’s Madrid or Malaga, that’ll come later.”

Valencia faces Sevilla on Thursday in perhaps the most even

matchup of the round, while all four remaining lower-tier clubs

host their first-leg matches against topflight clubs.

Second-tier Alcorcon, which knocked Madrid out of the

competition in 2009 and beat Villarreal this time around, plays

early-season surprise Levante, with the winner of that series going

on to play either Valencia or Sevilla. Madrid and Barcelona are

also on that side of the draw, leaving the eight teams on the other

half with a golden chance of reaching the final.

Third-tier Albacete, which eliminated Atletico Madrid, on

Tuesday welcomes 23-time champion Athletic Bilbao, which is without

injured striker Fernando Llorente, while third-tier Mirandes

welcomes struggling topflight side Racing Santander. Espanyol is at

second-division Cordoba on Thursday, while Real Sociedad faces

Mallorca on Wednesday.