Madrid, Barca set to face off in semis
Barcelona's thrilling 4-2 win at Málaga on Thursday night saw Lionel Messi and company into the Copa del Rey semi-finals, setting up a rare ‘Copa Clasico’ and a meeting against their nemesis, Real Madrid.
The Catalans now head for the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu next week, to take on their archrivals in what is expected to be a fiery two-legged encounter. Atletico Madrid will take on Sevilla in the cup’s other semifinal, but no mistake: the meeting between Real and Barcelona has been eagerly awaited in Spain ever since the Copa bracket was drawn last October.
To get here, Barca swatted aside Alavés, Córdoba and eventually overcame Málaga, Andrés Iniesta and Messi striking late to send Tito Vilanova's side through 6-4 on aggregate. Madrid made easy work of Alcoyano, Celta Vigo and Valencia without too many problems.
Madrid booked their place on Wednesday with a 1-1 draw in Valencia, a game it was never in danger of losing despite two red cards and goalkeeper Iker Casillas suffering a hand injury. Los Blancos’ fans were already salivating at the prospect of meeting Barcelona, making midfielder Xabi Alonso's attempts to play down the matchup unconvincing: “I don’t mind who we get,” he claimed, a line few believed.
Alonso’s attempts to keep things low key lasted only hours. First came injury news that Casillas would miss both semi-finals as well as Madrid’s upcoming Champions League round of 16 clashes with Manchester United. That was soon overshadowed by a cover story in Thursday’s Marca, which claimed club captain Casillas and teammate Sergio Ramos had issued an ultimatum to president Florentino Perez regarding manager Jose Mourinho. Next summer, “either he goes or we go” claimed the paper.
Perez reacted furiously, calling a press conference at the Bernabeu on Thursday lunchtime to denounce the story as “lies” spread to “destabilize the club.” A statement from Ramos and Casillas followed, saying that both men wanted “to show our support for our coach, Jose Mourinho, for whom we have the greatest respect.”
Madrid’s two most senior players do surely respect their formidable boss, but few believe they agree with what he says and does. Both men have been dramatically dropped from the starting team this season. Recent weeks also brought spats with Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María, Pepe and even Cristiano Ronaldo as Mourinho – apparently – is trying to provoke a reaction from his under-performing players.
Things have been quieter at Barcelona, but not as serene as they really should be given Tito Vilanova's seamless replacement of his former boss Pep Guardiola. The first worry came in December when Vilanova underwent surgery for the second time in just over a year to remove a saliva gland tumour. The procedure went well, but ongoing treatment in New York means he was not in Malaga on Thursday, and is unlikely to attend at the Bernabeu next midweek.
Ten days ago came the bombshell that long-serving Barca keeper Víctor Valdés wished to leave. Next there was a shaky performance in the Copa quarter-final first leg against Málaga, and a first league defeat of the season (2-3 at Real Sociedad). Suddenly Tito’s Barca, a side that had seemed invincible, looked beatable.
Despite the trouble in both camps, nothing focuses minds at either club like a Clásico. In the thirty months since Mourinho joined Madrid, the teams have met 14 times, with the pendulum swinging back and forth and back again, and individual genius from either Ronaldo or Messi often making the difference.
Messi may have won the 2012 FIFA Ballon D’Or, but Ronaldo has edged his rival recently on the field. The Portuguese decided last season’s vital La Liga meeting, as well as in the 2012 Spanish Supercopa and 2011 Copa del Rey finals. Honors were shared however during their last meeting, a 2-2 La Liga thriller that saw both men score twice.
Since then Barcelona has built a commanding 15-point lead over their rivals, while Real Madrid - not surprisingly considering all the squabbles - has slipped off the pace. (Adding salt to the wound is the fact that Real’s cross-town rivals, Atletico Madrid, are a full seven points ahead of them, good enough for second in the league race) That just makes Real’s need to win these Copa games - and prove it can still match its Catalan rivals - all the greater.
Cynics might say that so many clashes in such little time deadens their impact, that familiarity breeds not the contempt of a few years ago, but tedium. When asked on Tuesday whether he shared this opinion, Barca midfielder Cesc Fábregas smiled.
"Bored of Clasicos?" he said. "I don't think so. They are special, incomparable with any other game. The feeling in those days is just something else. It could be the Copa del Rey, the Champions League or the Copa Comarcal. You just approach it in a different way than any other game."
Fábregas is not alone in this sentiment. To the Bernabéu.