Playing its trademark spectacular football based on a myriad of one-touch passes highlighting the incredible technical skills of its players, FC Barcelona knocked out an aggressive, determined Malaga, 4-2 at La Rosaleda to advance to the semifinals of the Copa del Rey. The Cup holders will face eternal rival Real Madrid, with the first game scheduled January 30 at the Santiago Bernabeu, and the rematch on February 27 at the Camp Nou. Soccer fans brace yourselves. The real season is about to start.
What sets great teams apart is how they respond to pressure. After a surprising 2-2 at home, Barça had to win this game to avoid an elimination that would have pretty much voided all their accomplishments in the first half of the season. There were question marks and reasons for concern before the game. The Cup draw was followed with the first league loss, 3-2 at Real Sociedad, three days later. Head coach Tito Vilanova is in New York, being treated for cancer of the parotid gland at the Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital. Veteran goalkeeper Victor Valdes, a 100% Barça product, has suddenly announced he will not renew his contract when the current one expires in June 2014. Messi looked tired, the defense looked shaky.
Assistant coach Jordi Roura, the caretaker in Vilanova's absence, sent the best possible 11 against Malaga (with Pinto in goal, a Cup tradition initiated by Pep Guardiola a few years back). Roura called this game "our first final," and the players responded accordingly. When Barça clicks no team can stop the brilliant Catalans.
Malaga played well, though, applying pressing in Barcelona's half of the field and fouling Messi almost every time he touched the ball. Twice Barça took the lead, twice Malaga tied. Watching Pinto in goal makes you even more nervous than watching Valdes. But it became clear that on this day Barça would score more goals than its goalie would let in. Iniesta scored what would be the winning goal after a great pass from Fabregas, and Messi headed in a cross from Alves for the final score. The Brazilian defender, who played his best game of the season, also assisted on Pedro's first goal.
Messi had a slight pain in the adductor muscle of his right leg and was substituted with less than 10 minutes left, but he's expected to play in Sunday's league game with Osasuna at Camp Nou and in the Cup version of El Clásico on Wednesday.
Already 15 points back in La Liga, Real Madrid has bigger problems than Barcelona. Club president Florentino Perez and star players Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos are denying in public statements that the players have revolted against Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho. Casillas broke his hand in the league game against Valencia and will be out two months. Ramos, Pepe and Di Maria are suspended for yellow cards. Barcelona appears to have the upper hand, but history shows that anything is possible when Barça and Madrid clash.
As a kid, Vladimir Moraru dreamed to watch Kubala and Evaristo, but never had a chance. Wearing Messi's Barcelona shirt at 66 makes up for everything.