Cup comeback a must to end Barca’s mini slump

Barcelona needs a quick turnaround to get its start to 2017 back on track when Athletic Bilbao travels to the Camp Nou on Wednesday for the second leg of its Copa del Rey last 16 tie defending a 2-1 lead.

Barca is yet to taste victory in 2017 after following up defeat in Bilbao on Thursday by being held 1-1 at Villarreal in La Liga on Sunday despite a stunning Lionel Messi free-kick.   -  REUTERS

Barcelona needs a quick turnaround to get its start to 2017 back on track when Athletic Bilbao travels to the Camp Nou on Wednesday for the second leg of its Copa del Rey last 16 tie defending a 2-1 lead.

The Cup holder is yet to taste victory this year after following up 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 has emerged victorious in all five previous occasions, but Athletic took a big step towards reversing that trend as it 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 has 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 has also had more time to concentrate on its task after none of its 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 was 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 champion could continue when it travels 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 has one foot in the quarterfinal as it hosts 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 its tie finely balanced at 0-0.

Wednesday: (Time in IST)

Atletico Madrid v Las Palmas (0045) - Atletico leads 2-0 on aggregate

Alaves v Deportivo la Coruna (2230) - Tie level at 2-2 on aggregate

Villarreal v Real Sociedad (2230) - Sociedad leads 3-1 on aggregate

Cordoba v Alcorcon (2230) - Tie level at 0-0 on aggregate

Thursday:

Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao (0045) - Bilbao leads 2-1 on aggregate

Eibar v Osasuna (2230) - Eibar leads 3-0 on aggregate

Celta Vigo v Valencia (2230) - Celta leads 4-1 on aggregate

Friday:

Sevilla v Real Madrid (0045) - Madrid leads 3-0 on aggregate

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