5 things to know about the Copa del Rey
MADRID (AP) — The Copa del Rey is back this week, and Barcelona will travel to Levante for the second time in three days.
The Spanish league leaders were held to a 1-1 draw at Levante on Sunday, but now play in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals.
Also, Real Madrid will visit Espanyol for the first leg.
Here are five things to know about this week’s matches:
MESSI STEPS UP
After struggling with injuries for two months, Lionel Messi is back just in time to take up the slack as Brazil striker Neymar is sidelined with a tendon strain in his ankle.
Barcelona had to come from behind to draw on Sunday, dropping points at mid-table Levante.
Messi forced a fine save from Levante goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but the team lacked the inspiration to break down its opponent’s tight defensive strategy.
With Barcelona still adjusting to coach Gerardo Martino’s tactics, it will be up to Messi to step up and resolve what the coach has called a lack of fortune in front of goal.
While Barcelona stumbled, Real Madrid routed last-place Real Betis 5-0 on Saturday, elevating the Spanish powerhouse to third place with 50 points, one behind Barcelona and Atletico.
After thundering in a goal past Betis goalkeeper Stephan Andersen from the edge of the area, Cristiano Ronaldo stepped back to hand over the task of taking a free kick to Gareth Bale. The Welshman then bent it in past the hapless Andersen.
Having won this year’s Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo exuded confidence and was a permanent, menacing presence in attack, characteristics that will come in handy when facing Barcelona-based Espanyol.
“We are now where we wanted to be from the beginning,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said.
Atletico could have taken over first place on Sunday but a second-half penalty conceded at Sevilla for a 1-1 draw squandered the team’s chance.
Now Diego Simeone’s defending Copa champions face the daunting task of hosting Athletic Bilbao, which has won the competition 24 times.
The coach’s renowned training system that features muscular, fast-charging attacks and halftime pep talks, had little effect over the weekend.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said the team “knew Barcelona’s result before the game” and eased up a bit.
“When you go up 1-0 you hope to keep a clean sheet and win the match,” Courtois said. “It’s tough.”
RONALDO’S NEW HONOR
Madrid’s final training session before facing Espanyol was missing its star player.
After receiving the Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo was called home to Portugal to be named a Grand Officer of his nation by President Anibal Cavaco Silva.
LAST ONE STANDING
Real Sociedad takes on the last remaining non-first division club, Racing Santander, on Wednesday.
Santander, which plays in the third tier, advanced to the quarterfinals after ousting Villarreal 1-0 in an away match.
Santander has had to shrug off deep financial woes to get this far. Its players haven’t been paid in three months and the club has slid down to the third division in just two seasons after the departure of former owner Ahsan Ali Syed.
Having been relegated from the top division after the 2011-12 season, the club now needs a cash injection to stay afloat.