Barcelona opens Copa del Rey title defence
In this April 20, 2011, file photo, Barcelona fans wave pro-independence Catalonia flags during the final of the Copa del Rey soccer match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain. (AP / Andres Kudacki)
Published Monday, October 29, 2012 10:37AM EDT
BARCELONA, Spain -- After surpassing mentor Pep Guardiola's debut with a near perfect start in the Spanish league, Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova now turns to the Copa del Rey, a competition the Catalan club has dominated historically and especially in recent years.
Guardiola's last game came in the Copa final in May when Barcelona won its record 26th domestic cup by beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0. It was the club's 14th title under Guardiola, whose first trophy as coach came with the cup title in 2009 at the expense of Bilbao. Barcelona also reached the 2011 final where it lost to Real Madrid.
Barcelona opens the knockout competition playing away at third-division Alaves in the first leg of the round-of-32 on Tuesday.
"In the Copa, against Alaves, we must look to get a good result because it's a tough place to play and they will come out highly focused on the match," said striker David Villa, who has helped Barcelona score five goals in each of its last two league outings.
League co-leader Atletico Madrid plays at third-division Real Jaen a day later, while Jose Mourinho's Madrid is at third-tier Alcoyano, as both big clubs look to avoid an upset.
In his first season since taking over from Guardiola, Vilanova has led Barcelona to an outstanding start of eight wins and one draw in the league. Guardiola managed seven wins, a draw and a loss to start his debut season in 2008 when his team went on to win the league, Copa and Champions League.
Vilanova decided to rest Lionel Messi, forward Pedro Rodriguez, midfielder Xavi Hernandez and defender Jordi Alba, leaving all of them off his squad.
The cup holders will likely still be missing defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, meaning 21-year-old centre back Marc Batra could get another start. Some of his fellow youth players may also get the nod at Mendizorroza stadium in Vitoria.
Alaves reached the final of the 2001 UEFA Cup, but has since fallen on hard times. It has eight wins and two losses so far this season.
"We have to be fearless because when you are afraid of losing you never win," said Alaves coach Natxo Gonzalez. "We are playing the best team in the world, but we are not going out there just to enjoy the moment because that's when they score eight to 10 goals on you."
Given their busy playing schedule, many of the topflight sides may opt to field reserve players, giving an opportunity for the lower-tier teams to spring a surprise.
The precedents are not lacking. Madrid suffered a humiliating 4-0 trouncing at then unknown Alcorcon in 2009. Atletico won the Europe League last season, but was eliminated from the Copa at the hands of the modest Albacete. Last season also saw third-division Mirandes beat three top-division teams to reach the semifinals before bowing out to Bilbao.
After beating Osasuna 3-1 on Sunday, Atletico has won 11 straight matches in all competitions and is on a club-record unbeaten run of 22 games dating back to April.
"The Copa is a historic competition for Atletico," said coach Diego Simeone, who helped Atletico win the tournament in 1996 as a player. "We want to give it the respect it deserves, and I hope we can live up to these words with our play come Wednesday."
While Barcelona routed Rayo Vallecano 5-0 on Saturday, Madrid shook off its Champions League loss at Borussia Dortmund by rolling to a 5-0 win at Mallorca on Sunday, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring his 17th and 18th goals in all competitions.
"We are in a positive dynamic despite losing our last Champions League game," Mourinho said.
Bilbao-- second all time with 23 cup titles -- Malaga, and Valencia all face lower-division competition.
The round also features several meetings between first-division sides.
Zaragoza plays Granada on Tuesday, while on Thursday 2010 champion Sevilla hosts Espanyol, Real Betis is at Valladolid, and Mallorca visits Deportivo La Coruna.