Real Madrid & Barcelona set for huge Copa Del Rey semi-final showdown

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EL CLASSICO RETURNS FOR THE SECOND TIME THIS SEASON

One of the biggest and best clashes in world football comes in the form of El Classico. This iconic derby pits two of the best sides in the game against each other in Barcelona and Real Madrid - resulting in some truly titanic clashes over the years. These two are the most successful clubs in Spanish football history and these encounters often have huge ramifications as they're both not used to losing many games. This season they have already met once in La Liga but over the next 3 weeks we're going to be treated to 2 epic clashes between these two clubs in the Copa Del Rey.

The draw for the semi-finals of the Spanish domestic cup were completed last week and straight away this fixture got everyone talking. With both clubs equally as desperate to get their hands on silverware we should see 2 fantastic games over the next few weeks & what makes it even more interesting is that the winner will go through to the final on 25th May where they'll face one of Real Betis or Valencia. Whichever one of these sides makes it to that stage will feel confident that they can go all the way but there's a lot of work to be done first, starting on Wednesday night at the Camp Nou.

BARCELONA ENTER EL CLASSICO AS BIG FAVOURITES TO MAKE THE FINAL

Barcelona kick-off this Cop Del Rey tie on home soil and Ernesto Valverde's men are absolutely flying at the moment. Being head coach for a club the size of Barca entails a huge amount of pressure and expectation & after a testing first campaign (where they still won 2 trophies) they're looking in very good shape to dominate yet again. Valverde's philosophy is different to what Barca supporters are used, the free flowing all attacking football isn't as visible as in previous regimes but what they are is effective & incredibly hard to beat. That strong, experienced spine to the side remains with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and of course Lionel Messi headlining a star-studded side that still has a realistic chance of winning every major piece of silverware on offer this season. Valverde has added stalwarts such as Arturo Vidal, Jeison Murillo and surprisingly Kevin-Prince Boateng to his ranks who'll all add extra steel and relish being involved in El Classico.

Arturo Vidal
Arturo Vidal is one of several new signings made by Ernesto Valverde and he made a fast start to life at the Camp Nou, scoring in Barca's 5-1 win over Real Madrid in October

These two meet for their first leg clash on Wednesday night at the Camp Nou and Barca come into it as big favourites just not to win, but to progress through into the next round. The Catalans have odds of 3/4 (SkyBet) to win and take a first leg advantage to the Santiago Bernabeu with them in 3 weeks time and recent form suggests that they're more than capable of doing so. Valverde's men have really stepped things up over the last couple of months of the season, losing just 3 of their previous 27 matches in all competitions which isn't good news for the visitors who evidently have it all to do. This is also reflected in the qualification odds, with Barcelona odds-on favourites to go through to the final in Betis at 8/13 (SkyBet), this is despite playing on home soil first which is considered a disadvantage by many.

This is a competition that Barcelona have a rich history in with more wins than any other Spanish club, lifting the trophy in a record 30 occasions. They've ended up winning it in each of the previous 4 seasons and more success in this years tournament will see them write history by becoming the first ever club to win it 5 times in a row - so all the motivation is there for them to go and do it. Last years final saw them record one of the biggest winning margins ever in a Copa Del Rey Final at Atletico Madrid's new home, the Wanda Metropolitano. Goals from Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Philippe Coutinho and an emotional Andres Iniesta - playing in his final match for Barca - sealed a 5-0 rout in the capital and they'll use that day as motivation against Real Madrid on Wednesday evening.

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MESSI, SUAREZ & CO ALL FIT & AVAILABLE FOR SELECTION

Over the years Barcelona have had some absolutely sublime players on their books. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Xavi, Andres Iniesta etc and the current crop aren't too bad either. Their playing style may have adjusted slightly but they still have those world class attacking, flair players that you associate with the Catalan giants and they're absolutely on fire at the moment. The go-to-guy is still the worlds greatest (and arguably best ever) Lionel Messi who at the age of 31 is still reaching incredible new levels somehow. The Argentine has been at the forefront of Barcelona's dominance for over 10 years now and he's showing no signs of slowing down despite being on the wrong side of 30. He's missed 3 weeks of the season through injury but he's still somehow has managed to score the most goals (29) and record the most assists (14) of any player in world football which is simply staggering. Following the departures of the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Neymar over the last few years there's been added importance to the consistency and level of performance that Barca's diminutive no.10 delivers and he's producing more than ever - which is incredibly worrying news for defences all over Europe.

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi will once again be the man to watch in this game and Real Madrid are an opponent he enjoys facing - netting 26 times against them

Supporting him on Wednesday night will be Luis Suarez who is also enjoying another magnificent season and if he was playing for a different club his numbers would probably be appreciated even more - but Messi's magnificence overshadows his achievements. Since joining from Liverpool in 2014 he's been one of the most prolific forwards in world football, netting 167 goals in just 222 appearances to put him 5th in the clubs all-time standings which is immensely impressive - although he's still a massive 410 behind Messi. The pair will be joined in attack by the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele so we're expecting plenty of goals and exciting attacking play in Catalonia on Wednesday evening.

The Barcelona supporters will be hoping for something similar to the last time that they took on Real Madrid at the Camp Nou - which remains the only meeting between the two clubs this season. It was the first El Classico without either Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo for over 10 years but it didn't damage the spectacle in the slightest, with the hosts rolling out rampant 5-1 winners. A hat-trick from Suarez along with a goal apiece for Coutinho and Arturo Vidal did the damage and a repeat here would send out a massive statement not just to the rest of Spain but also Europe, with the UEFA Champions League set to resume next week.

IMPROVING REAL MADRID SLOWLY RETURNING TO THEIR BEST

In comparison to all the excitement and positivity surrounding Barcelona during the 2018/19 season, it's been much the opposite with their rivals and opponents Real Madrid. Los Blancos have proven their credentials on the European stage over the last 3 seasons by becoming the first side in UEFA Champions League history to win three successive titles - the most recent of which came last May when they overcame Liverpool 3-1 in Kyiv. But their domestic form has faltered at times despite their three European crowns, with them struggling to deliver the consistency required to overthrow Barcelona. They very much are a team for the big occasions as their Champions League successes prove, but their fans are growing impatient when it comes to their lack of success domestically (winning 1 La Liga & 1 Copa Del Rey in 7 years) so a two-legged tie against their old foes could be just what they need to get back on track.

Real Madrid
This season has been a testing one for everyone involved with Real Madrid, but their supporters will be encouraged by how their form has picked up in recent weeks

This season has been very much one of transition for Las Blancos. This Real Madrid team has won pretty much every available honour over the last few years & the summer departures of key men such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane - combined with a lack of investment in the playing squad - has resulted in uncharacteristic results and performances. Former Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui was the man brought in to spearhead the new era at the club and fill the huge void left by Zidane but he instead was sacked just 14 games into his reign after guiding Real to their worst ever start to a season. Former player Santiago Solari has been put in interim control and he's steadily gone about restoring Real to their former glory. Their return to form is something that's gone under the radar slightly despite being the richest and biggest club in world football - winning 18 of their 23 games since getting battered by Barca (5-1) at the Camp Nou.

Five of those wins have come in their previous five games so they're looking in decent shape coming into this one, which is the start of a huge week for Los Blancos. After their trip to Catalonia they face Atletico Madrid on Saturday before travelling to Amsterdam to face Ajax in the Champions League, so it's imperative that they maintain this positive momentum. Away trips don't come much tougher than Barcelona at the Camp Nou so this'll be a massive test of where they are right now, especially with them winning just 1 of their previous 8 meetings between the two clubs.

LOS BLANCOS LOOKING TO PROGRESS THROUGH TO FIRST COPA DEL REY FINAL IN 5 YEARS

The post Cristiano Ronaldo era has been tougher than anyone at Real Madrid expected it to be but now it looks like they're slowly starting to adjust to life without their talisman. The 34 year-old departed for Juventus last summer after scoring a mind blowing 450 goals in just 438 games for the club - something has which has effected them massively this year. Hitting the back of the net has been a major problem after failing to replace him in the transfer window, with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Isco contributing just 16 league goals between them - Ronaldo hit 26 alone in La Liga in 2017/18. But it does now look like things are changing, they've won each of their previous 5 matches in all competitions, scoring 16 times in the process which is great form to bring into this one but they'll know all too well that they'll need to raise their game at the Camp Nou.

Gareth Bale Real Madrid
Gareth Bale has been a frustrated figure in front of goal for Real Madrid this season, scoring just 5 times in La Liga

That 5-1 defeat at the hands of Barca will still be haunting some of Real's senior players and they'll be eager to avenge that, especially with the second leg to come at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in 3 weeks time. Real may have struggled to deliver consistently over the course of the campaign but as previously mentioned, you simply cannot write them off in a one-off game. They may lack a prolific goalscorer but they make up for it in desire and experience - with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Raphael Varane and Luka Modric all world class players who know how to win. Ramos in particular is someone who really splits opinion and he's bound to get a frosty reception from the Camp Nou crowd, but he really epitomises everything what Los Blancos are about with his never-say-die attitude and he'll need to be right at his best if they're to come out on top.

This two legged clash has all the makings of a classic and we're expecting plenty of entertainment in Catalonia on Wednesday. If Messi, Suarez & co are all fully fit and available then Real could be in for another long evening just like in October when they were beaten 5-1. But their recent form offers them some hope and many will find their odds of 7/2 to win very appealing. If they can return to the capital still in the game, there's no reason why they can't claim a positive result in the second leg and potentially make it through to their first Copa Del Rey final in 5 years.

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