Barcelona could face Athletic Bilbao in Copa without Messi
MADRID (AP) — Defending champion Barcelona looks set to be without three key players — including Lionel Messi — when it travels northwest for its Copa del Rey quarterfinal match at Athletic Bilbao.
With Luis Suarez suspended, Jordi Alba sidelined with a right leg injury and Messi recovering from what Barcelona said was “discomfort” in his right leg, coach Luis Enrique will need to shuffle his normal starting lineup for what will be a rematch of last year’s final.
On paper, Barcelona is the overwhelming favorite, having humbled Athletic 6-0 in the league on Sunday and come away the 3-1 winner in last season’s final.
However, Messi and Suarez are the mainstay of Luis Enrique’s attack, scoring 48 goals for Barcelona this season, with the remainder of his forwards — Neymar, Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez — contributing just 26.
The first leg of this season’s encounter will be in Bilbao on Wednesday, with the return match at the Camp Nou on Jan. 27.
In the other quarterfinals, Spanish league leader Atletico Madrid travels to Celta Vigo while Valencia hosts recently promoted Las Palmas from the Canary Islands and Sevilla will welcome Mirandes, the only second-division team in the draw.
Messi spent most of Monday morning at a Barcelona clinic undergoing tests after having been substituted at half-time during Sunday’s match. Barcelona described the substitution as “a precaution” after the Argentine forward had complained of “a sore hamstring.” After the tests, a club statement ruled out a hamstring injury.
Midfielder Sergi Roberto said he hoped Messi and Alba would recover rapidly, but added he was willing to play in whatever position Enrique chose for him.
“We have to be wary of the Athletic club in the Copa because it will play at home in front of its fans who are very demanding,” Roberto said.
Here are some things to know about this week’s Copa del Rey quarterfinal matches:
Atletico coach Diego Simeone is determined to focus exclusively on his next target. “My message is let’s not look beyond our match against Celta,” he said after beating Las Palmas 3-0 on Sunday.
Simeone congratulated Filipe Luis who opened the scoring and Antoine Griezmann who netted a brace. He said Griezmann was attaining a scoring regularity “that speaks volumes about his quality.”
Simeone praised Griezmann’s flexibility. “I won’t place him among the best in the world, simply invite him to carry on improving,” he said. “Apart from his natural talent, he can play on the right, on the left and has ended up as a forward.”
ON COURSE, JUST
Valencia coach Gary Neville’s best hope of winning silverware this season is the Copa, but he will need to get his squad to improve in attack and defense. His club is currently 11th in the league after losing 2-0 at Real Sociedad and drawing 2-2 against 18th-place Rayo Vallecano.
Neville has described some of his squad’s play as unacceptable and very disappointing. “In football you have to win and enjoy yourself, and we didn’t show any of that,” he said after Sunday’s draw.
“I have confidence in the work we are undertaking, and I agree that the results aren’t what we had hoped for,” he said. “We have to correct this immediately.”
EMERY WANTS MORE
Coach Unai Emery joined Sevilla three years ago this month and is keen for his club to advance to the semifinals of the Copa, having achieved 58 wins from his 115 matches in charge. “We want our fans to be able to enjoy a good performance,” he said.
Emery trained a full squad Sunday, including 19-year-old Ukrainian winger Maryan Shved, after a 2-1 league win against Malaga the previous day.