Cup comeback a must to end Barca’s new year blues
MADRID: Barcelona need a quick turnaround to get their start to 2017 back on track when Athletic Bilbao travel to the Camp Nou Wednesday for the second leg of their Copa del Rey last 16 tie defending a 2-1 lead.
The Cup holders are yet to taste victory this year after following up defeat in Bilbao Thursday by being held 1-1 at Villarreal in La Liga Sunday despite a stunning last minute Lionel Messi free-kick.
“We have an unfavorable result, but the fact of having scored a goal and deserved a different result gives us the necessary confidence to face this challenge,” Barca boss Luis Enrique said Tuesday.
The tie is the sixth time Barca and Athletic have been paired together in the Cup in nine seasons, including three finals.
Barca have emerged victorious in all five previous occasions, but Athletic took a big step toward reversing that trend as they held on with nine-men for the final 10 minutes of the first leg after red cards for Raul Garcia and Ander Iturraspe.
Both will therefore be suspended, while Barca have a fully-fit and suspension-free squad to choose from with back-up goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen fit again and in line to replace Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal.
Barca have also had more time to concentrate on their task after none of their players attended FIFA’s gala in Zurich Monday despite four of them – Messi, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique – being chosen in world football’s governing body’s team of the year.
“As a coach I back their decision because there is a sporting situation that is above anything else,” Enrique added.
“The sport has prevailed over everything else and any criticism is part of life.”
By contrast, Real Madrid were well represented as Cristiano Ronaldo picked up the inaugural The Best award for the world’s best player in 2016, while four other Madrid players also made their way into the team of the year.
And a week of celebration for the European champions could continue when they travel to Sevilla Thursday boasting a healthy 3-0 first leg lead.
Should Zinedine Zidane’s men avoid defeat for the 40th consecutive game they will surpass Barca’s Spanish record of 39 games unbeaten set last season.
With another tricky trip to Sevilla to come in La Liga Sunday, Zidane is expected to once again rotate his squad with Ronaldo possibly sitting out to make way for James Rodriguez – who netted twice in the first leg.
Real Sociedad, Eibar and Celta Vigo are also heavy favorites to reach the last eight, while Cordoba and Alcorcon will fight it out to be the second division’s only representatives in the quarters with their tie finely balanced at 0-0. –
Messi and Neymar attend a training session at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper, Spain.