Barca eye quarters to end fiery Espanyol series
Holders Barcelona will be looking to seal their place in the Copa del
Rey quarter-finals on Wednesday in the final instalment of three heated
Catalan derbies against Espanyol over 10 days.
The European champions hold a commanding 4-1 lead from the first-leg
which Espanyol ended with nine men after red cards for Hernan Perez and
Papakouli Diop, whilst goalkeeper Pau Lopez escaped punishment for
stamping on newly crowned Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.
However, Barca will be without the suspended Luis Suarez as he was
given a two-match ban for confronting Espanyol players in the tunnel
after the game and calling them a “waste of space”.
Espanyol have also been reported to Spain’s anti-violence commission
by the Spanish league for alleged racist abuse aimed at Brazilian star
Neymar during the sides’ 0-0 draw in La Liga on January 2.
Barca boss Luis Enrique compared Espanyol’s roughhouse tactics to
playing American football after the first-leg, but will meet with his
counterpart Constantin Galca on Tuesday to try and ease tensions between
the two clubs.
Despite their comfortable lead and a punishing schedule of up to 17
games in January and February, Enrique is expected to start with both
Messi and Neymar in attack in Suarez’s absence.
Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta are
also expected to return after being rested for Saturday’s 4-0 rout of
La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid have far more work to do to reach the
last eight after only managing a 1-1 draw with a much-changed side away
to Rayo Vallecano last week.
Atletico boss Diego Simeone has made a telling contribution with one
of his substitutes scoring in each of the last four games and insisted
he won’t hold back in rotating his squad once more for the return-leg at
the Vicente Calderon on Thursday.
“We are doing things well and that gives us energy to prepare for the game in the Copa del Rey,” said the Argentine.
“We don’t believe we are better or worse than any opponents, but we
have a group of 23 players that are prepared to compete at any moment
and those that come off the bench are giving us the chance to decide the
Gary Neville’s Valencia can put their La Liga woes to one side by
completing their passage into the quarters as they hold a 4-0 lead over
Juan Merino takes temporary charge of Real Betis, after Pepe Mel was
sacked for the second time by Los Verdiblancos on Sunday, away at local
rivals Sevilla hoping to overcome a 2-0 deficit.
The tie of the round, though, is likely to come at El Madrigal where
high-flying Villarreal look to turn around a 3-2 first-leg defeat to
last season’s finalists Athletic Bilbao.