Malaga vs. Barcelona: A Cup Tie Fit for a King
The two-legged King's Cup tie between Barcelona and Malaga has thrown up two of the best games of the Spanish season so far.
Two sides that keep the ball on the deck, pass intricately and are devastating on the counter-attack: it's cup football at its purest as 25 goal attempts in Thursday's return leg proved.
The Spanish obsession with the Clasico is set to be reignited next week after Barcelona slipped into another gear in the final turn to see off the challenge of Malaga with a 2-4 return leg victory, but these encounters have been worthy of a final.
Say what you like about Jose Mourinho. The man has done Spanish football one good service by taking the cup seriously since he arrived in the capital.
Manuel Pellegrini, who will always be remembered at the Bernabeu for the Alcorconazo, almost masterminded the coup of the century but Barcelona, under the direction of Jordi Roura, was just too good in the end.
5: Jose Manuel Pinto...why Not?
Barcelona will soon be needing a new goalkeeper. At least by the end of next season; maybe sooner than that if a team in foreign climes decides to test the water with a cheeky bid this summer.
Many names have been thrown into the hat to take on arguably the most attractive No. 1 position in the game. That of Pepe Reina is obvious: his father played in goal for Barcelona and Reina started his career there.
But the Liverpool goalkeeper is in questionable form, and despite the best efforts of Miguel to sell his son to the Catalan club, why should it look elsewhere for a replacement?
Pinto was a very good first choice keeper at Celta, has European experience and has been at Barça since 1998.
His distribution is a little underrated, he shares the same coaches as Valdes after all, and works with the first team every day.
And he is obviously not that rusty from so much bench time as the above save in the first leg, and another reflex stop at the end of the first half on Thursday from Ignacio Camacho show.
There was also little Pinto could do about Diego Buonanotte's strike, Camacho's pickpocketing effort or Roque Santa Cruz's pile driver.
4: Gerard Pique Bangs One in for Milan
This slide was originally going to muse whether or not Pique should have been given the night off, under the circumstances.
The Barcelona defender has been a bit distracted of late, although having Shakira waiting at home would do that to most people.
Pique was guilty of a bit of ball watching when Pinto parried Camacho's shot, and the keeper's quick reactions prevented the follow-up being slotted in.
The Spain defender was also a little slow in closing down Joaquin for Malaga's first equalizer, but the whole defense has been caught on the hop by some of the south coast club's set pieces and attacking trickery over the tie.
To make amends, Pique popped up with Barcelona's second, a cool finish from within the penalty area, having brought the ball down on his chest.
He could even have bagged a fifth at the death but was unable to latch on to the rebound from Carlos Kameni's block.
It would have been a little harsh on the Cameroon keeper, who was excellent throughout. And it spared everyone another of those thumb-in-mouth celebrations. From Bebeto to the ball under the shirt... isn't it time someone came up with a new one already?
3: The Final 15
Barcelona's fitness levels are quite phenomenal. So is the team's ability to score in the final 15 minutes of a game.
In the league Barça has banged in 13 goals in the last quarter of an hour this season; Leo Messi has scored six, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi two each and David Villa three.
On average, the Catalans manage 3.3 goals per match, quite enough to see off most Liga rivals.
In the first 15 minutes of all Liga games this season Barcelona has scored seven and conceded one. Between minutes 61 to 75, the aggregate is 6-3. Many games are already over by then. But when required, Barcelona has banged in 16 in the last quarter of an hour and conceded just five.
When winning at half time, they have lost just once, to Real Sociedad. When losing at half time, they have not been beaten.
Malaga was applauded from the field despite losing out on a semifinal place, and rightly so. Barça's staying power is part of the package.
2: Whither Alexis and David Villa?
One is short of form, the other short on fitness, but both seem to be short on time.
Reports suggesting David Villa wants out before the end of the January window are not implausible. The Spain striker clearly sees his future elsewhere and doesn't fancy sitting out the rest of the season in Catalonia.
Alexis has kept his counsel so far in 2013. Two minutes in a King's Cup game and an error-strewn outing in the first leg added to six league starts suggest the writing is on the wall for the Chile international, despite backing from Tito Vilanova, who noted the Camp Nou has "eaten" some good players in its time.
The combined market value of both players touches 50 million, and the bit part roles they have been consigned to are more for the likes of Thiago and Cristian Tello.
Seven days until February. Who'll blink first?
1: Go on Then, a Prediction...
All things considered, Real Madrid will be lucky to get through the first leg, let alone two.
To add injury to recent insults at the Bernabeu, Alvaro Arbeloa managed to knacker Real captain Iker Casillas during the quarterfinal second leg against Valencia. The Spain keeper is likely to be out for a month or so, hampering not only progress in this cup competition, but also the continental big one against Manchester United.
Antonio Adan's fast-tracking into the first team has probably scarred the poor lad as much as Real itself.
Fabio Coentrao and Angel di Maria, who when on top form is a decisive player for Real, are both suspended for the first leg and Marcelo and Gonzalo Higuaín is only returning to full fitness after injury layoffs.
Barcelona's relatively injury free roster, coupled with a locker room ultimatum report in pro-Madrid rag Marca, which was denied by Florentino Perez in a rare media intervention Thursday, things do not look rosy for Real in this particular scrap.
If anything happens to Cristiano Ronaldo on Sunday at Getafe, it'll be a whitewash.
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