Here we go again. Barcelona and Real Madrid are getting ready to face off not once, but twice this week as they meet in tonight's King's Cup semifinal second leg (Canal+, 9pm) and then again on Saturday in La Liga.
With the Catalans already so far ahead in the league title race -- 16 points beyond third-placed Real - it is arguably Tuesday's match at Camp Nou that has the most riding on it. The tie is delicately poised at 1-1 following the first leg at the Bernabéu, meaning Barcelona carry a slight advantage into the game.
But it's the Liga leader that perhaps also starts in the more precarious situation. Still reeling from last week's 2-0 Champions League defeat to AC Milan, the team continues to leak goals and had to fight back from 1-0 down to beat Sevilla 1-2 on Sunday -- the 11th game on the trot it has failed to keep a clean sheet.
The author of the second of those goals may have been Leo Messi - the strike marked his 38th in La Liga this year, his 49th in all competitions and 302nd for Barcelona -- but the Argentinean hasn't exactly looked at his best in his last two matches, lacking finesse and precision in the final pass and in front of goal. The number 10 insists it is nothing to do with his fitness. "My body is used to not resting," he told reporters after the Sevilla match. "It improves with each match; playing helps me find a rhythm."
My body is used to not resting; it improves with each match" Leo Messi
He went on to praise the role of the returning David Villa, who scored Barça's first on Sunday. "We had a lot of the ball [in the last two games], but didn't generate chances. On the other hand, we had more space with El Guaje as the number nine, playing more centrally, because he kept the central defenders busy and generated space."
Villa is likely to make way for the rested Pedro and Cesc Fàbregas -- who scored Barça's goal in the first leg -- on Tuesday. Jordi Roura, who remains at the helm as coach Tito Vilanova continues his convalescence in New York after cancer surgery, says the team has analyzed its recent failings and plans to rectify them. "It is true that you can attribute some to the quality of the opposition, but others are down to us," he says. "We will try to correct that and not make mistakes."
For Real coach José Mourinho, the next eight days could well define his legacy at the club. The cup represents a chance for some consolation silverware to soothe the sting of his failing Liga campaign, while he will no doubt be less focused on Saturday's Liga rematch than next week's all-important Champions League second leg at Manchester United. "It's a normal week," the Portuguese coach told the press with characteristic nonchalance on Monday. "They are games that everyone wants to play. [...] We want them to come quickly: tomorrow's match, Saturday's match and the Manchester match."
Mourinho should have Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema both back for Tuesday's tie, though the big question is if Kaká might get a starting spot. After injury and confidence crises, the Brazilian is enjoying his best spell since arriving at Real, playing the full 90 minutes, making 45 passes and scoring with his only shot against Depor at the weekend.
Rather more sure of his place, Cristiano Ronaldo will be looking to better his impressive scoring record at the Camp Nou. The forward has scored in his last five matches against Barça -- no player has scored in six consecutive clásicos away -- with six goals overall, putting him behind only Ferenc Puskás (seven), Messi (eight) and Francisco Gento (11) in terms of clásico away goals.
In the other semifinal, Atlético takes a 2-1 lead to Sevilla's Sánchez Pizjuán stadium on Wednesday.