Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo renew duel in Copa del Rey
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are primed for another memorable showdown when Barcelona and Real Madrid meet Wednesday at the Santiago Bernabeu for the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals.
Messi is coming off a four-goal performance over the weekend and has found the back of the net in the last 16 games he has started, while Ronaldo has sparked a recent resurgence in Madrid with 10 goals and two hat tricks this month.
With Barcelona in firm command of the Spanish league title race, the Copa del Rey takes on even more importance for Madrid as it tries to salvage some silverware from its disappointing season.
Atletico Madrid hosts Sevilla on Thursday in the opening leg of the other semifinal series.
"We are very excited. We want to reach the final and have the added motivation of playing against Real Madrid,'' said midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who extended his contract with Barcelona to 2016 on Monday.
"We will try to impose our style of play,'' said Xavi. "We will go out looking to win the game and trying to score as many goals as possible so we can wrap up the series back at home.''
The return legs will be played late next month.
This will be the third straight year that Barcelona and Madrid meet in the Copa del Rey. Madrid beat Barcelona in the 2011 final, while Barcelona knocked Madrid out of the quarterfinals last season on its way to claiming a record 26th title.
The last time the two European powerhouses played in October it ended in a 2-2 league draw as Messi and Ronaldo each scored twice in a brilliant display of arguably the sport's two best players. Prior to that, the two rivals played twice in the Spanish Super Cup to start the season with both teams winning at home and Madrid emerging with the trophy.
Messi, who has scored 44 times this season and just established a club record by scoring for an 11th consecutive league match, has his aim set on yet another milestone.
The four-time world player of the year has 17 goals all-time against Madrid, leaving him one short of equaling Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano's record.
"Real Madrid versus Barcelona is the best game in the world,'' Madrid striker Karim Benzema said. "Both of us have great teams. It's always a tough match, each `clasico' is different, but tomorrow we play at home and we want to play well and get the win. We played a great game against them in the second leg of the Super Cup, and we hope we can repeat that victory.''
Unfortunately for Madrid, Messi will be facing a thinned defense.
Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas will miss his first match against Barcelona since 2002 with a broken left hand, leaving the home goal in the care of either the relatively inexperienced Adan Garrido or new signing Diego Lopez.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho will also be without defenders Sergio Ramos and Fabio Coentrao and forward Angel Di Maria because of suspension, while defender Pepe is out injured.
Barcelona arrives with its squad intact except for coach Tito Vilanova, who is reportedly in the United States seeking further treatment after having a tumor removed from his throat. Assistant coach Jordi Roura will again be on the touchline.
Ronaldo has scored 30 goals for Madrid this season, and after being outshone by Messi in their first encounters, he has become a terror for Barcelona's defense by scoring in six consecutive meetings.
Wednesday's game will be the 27-year-old forward's 500th career club match. So far he has scored 302 goals in his club career.
Atletico is hoping to recover striker Radamel Falcao in time for the game against Sevilla. The Colombia striker is nursing a pulled thigh muscle and did not train Tuesday.
Mid-table in the league and not playing in European competition for the first time in several years, Sevilla- the 2010 Copa del Rey winner- knows that this is its only chance to win a title this campaign.
Sevilla faces an Atletico team that is a perfect 11-for-11 at home in league play and has yet to lose at Vicente Calderon Stadium this season.
"We are taking on a physical opponent that is dangerous on the break. But we are confident,'' Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said. "We are only one step away from the final.''