Just days before Paris Saint-Germain touch down in the Spanish capital, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid have the chance to boost their fragile confidence when they face Real Sociedad in La Liga on Saturday.
The reigning European champions have been shipping a worrying number of goals in the build-up to their Champions League last-16 showdown with the likes of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe.
Zidane’s side have kept just one clean sheet in their last eight outings, and they could pay a heavy price for any goals conceded against the French giants in next Wednesday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“It shows that we need to work even harder. That’s football — whoever your opponents they are there to make things difficult for you,” said Zidane after last week’s disappointing 2-2 draw at Levante.
That result left Madrid fourth in the table, a point behind Valencia in third but with a game in hand.
Real Sociedad lie in the lower half of the table but they score goals for fun — witness a 5-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna last weekend.
They also have one of the worst defensive records in Spain, so Cristiano Ronaldo — who turned 33 this week — will hope to fill his boots along with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema.
Zidane’s side are still 19 points behind leaders Barcelona, who remain unbeaten, but the Frenchman refuses to completely give up on a successful La Liga title defence, publicly at least.
“I am always going to say that the league is not over. There are a lot of points to play for, but we dropped two in a game we were controlling,” he said of last week’s game, when Levante twice came from behind to draw.
“We needed to make it three straight wins and we couldn’t do it.”
Barcelona have what looks like a straightforward home meeting with mid-table Getafe on Sunday, fresh from securing their place in the Copa del Rey final by beating Valencia on Thursday.
The Catalans do not face Chelsea in their Champions League last-16 tie until February 20 so can focus on further consolidating their nine-point lead over Atletico Madrid at the summit of La Liga.
Philippe Coutinho savoured a “special moment” after his first goal for Barcelona helped them reach their fifth consecutive Copa del Rey final.
Coutinho opened the scoring in a 2-0 win at Valencia that sent Barcelona through 3-0 on aggregate, the Brazilian netting four minutes after coming on at half-time for his fifth appearance since his £142million switch from Liverpool last month.
He was quoted on Barcelona’s Twitter feed as saying: “I feel happy to have scored my first goal for Barca and have helped the team get to the final.
“It’s a special moment.”
Coutinho’s goal came when he slid to get his right leg to a cross from Luis Suarez, who also produced the assist when Ivan Rakitic struck in the 82nd minute.
Barcelona will face Sevilla in the final, aiming to win the Copa del Rey for a fourth successive season and a 30th time overall.
Boss Ernesto Valverde said in quotes reported on AS: “Barca are used to reaching and playing the finals. In my case, not so much.
“I feel very happy as it is the fifth consecutive final that the players of this team are going to play, something very complicated to repeat and repeat.
“We thought it would be very difficult and that’s how it was, but we’re going home with the final ticket in our pocket.”
When asked how Gerard Pique was after the defender came off in the final 10 minutes, Valverde said: “In the end he noticed an overload and we decided that the best thing of all is that the player rests.”
Valencia boss Marcelino said as he gave his reflections on the game: “I think they (Barcelona), in general, were superior. We had our opportunities.
“I think that in the first half we deserved to go level, but we did not do it and then their goal (Coutinho’s) decided the tie.”
The sides meet in the second leg of their semi-final showdown at the Mestalla on Thursday evening with Barca carrying a 1-0 lead into the game courtesy of Luis Suarez‘s lone strike at the Nou Camp last week.
Coach Marcelino knows the hosts are up against it if they are to beat the Catalan giants, who last lost in Valencia in March 2008, but is confident they have what it takes to push the runaway LaLiga leaders all the way.
He told Valencia’s official website: “We are expecting a long game, a very tough game, and hopefully after the 90 minutes we will be able to say that we are in a Copa del Rey final.
“Emotionally, it is going to be an intense game, but we need to play with our heads and our hearts. We have to be clever. If we don’t defend well, we won’t go through. I am asking the fans to help us defend.
“We should be humble because we know that we don’t have a team that can dominate Barcelona for 90 minutes. Our plan is to defend well, but to attack better than in the first leg and get into the final stages with the possibility of going through.
“I prefer to avoid extra-time.”
Valencia will run out having lost each of their last five games in all competitions, one of them a 2-1 defeat at Alaves in the last round, although they ultimately prevailed on penalties.
However, they needed a late equaliser from defender Gerard Pique to spare their blushes against derby rivals Espanyol – the only team to have beaten them in the meantime – in the league on Sunday.
Lionel Messi was used only as a second-half substitute at the weekend as Valverde made six changes, and Marcelino interpreted that as an indication of Barca’s focus on the cup-tie.
He said: “This shows that Barca want to get to a final and not throw the game away, and also that they respect us a lot.”
Valverde is expecting a more progressive approach from Valencia on their own pitch and admits his team is unlikely to be able to rely on its slim advantage alone to progress.
He told a press conference: “Each team will be loyal to its style, but Valencia will try to be more aggressive in attack because of the result from the first leg. Both teams will go for it.
“Taking into account the attacking potential of Valencia, more so playing in Mestalla, I have the feeling that to get through, we will have to score.”