Madrid (AFP) – Barcelona need a quick turnaround to get their start to 2017 back on track when Athletic Bilbao travel to the Camp Nou on 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 following up their defeat in Bilbao on Thursday by being held 1-1 at Villarreal in La Liga on Sunday despite a stunning last minute Lionel Messi free-kick.
“We have an unfavourable 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 on 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 towards 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, whilst 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 on 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,” added Enrique.
“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, whilst four other Madrid players also made it into the team of the year.
And a week of celebration for the European champions could continue when they travel to Sevilla on 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 on 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.
Atletico Madrid already have one foot in the quarter-finals as they host an under-strength Las Palmas on Tuesday with a comfortable 2-0 aggregate lead.
Real Sociedad, Eibar and Celta Vigo are also heavy favourites to reach the last eight, whilst 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.
Atletico Madrid v Las Palmas (2015) – Atletico lead 2-0 on aggregate
Alaves v Deportivo la Coruna (1800) – Tie level at 2-2 on aggregate
Villarreal v Real Sociedad (1800) – Sociedad lead 3-1 on aggregate
Cordoba v Alcorcon (1800) – Tie level at 0-0 on aggregate
Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao (2015) – Bilbao lead 2-1 on aggregate
Eibar v Osasuna (1800) – Eibar lead 3-0 on aggregate
Celta Vigo v Valencia (1800) – Celta lead 4-1 on aggregate
Sevilla v Real Madrid (2015) – Madrid lead 3-0 on aggregate
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