Wounded Atletico prepare for rampant Real
Atletico Madrid have just three days to recover from their Hercules mauling, or risk suffering an even more painful night at the hands of bitter rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final.
Los Rojiblancos reached the competition's final last year, but their chances of a repeat performance this year look slim if their first-half performance against promoted Hercules last night is anything to go by. Atletico shipped four goals in the opening 45 minutes en route to a 4-1 defeat, and coach Quique Sanchez Flores was left apologising to fans following the match.
"We have to ask the supporters who came to the stadium, as well as those who weren't here, to forgive us for the vulgar first half that we played," said the 45-year-old, who wants his side to get back to the form that saw them win the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Super Cup last year, as well as being runners-up in the Copa del Rey. "We have to reorganise the team and get back to being who we were just a short while ago. This is the same squad that played in three finals and won two titles.
"We're working in the same direction as always, and when accidents like this occur we have to accept them, ask for forgiveness and make sure they don't happen again. We're obligated to play like men in just three days time. I think that we're prepared to play a very different game."
Even before their capitulation at Hercules, Atletico were considered underdogs to get past Real, who are looking to win the cup for the first time in 18 years. Not only are Los Merengues enjoying a fine first season under Jose Mourinho, winning 22 of 28 matches in all competitions and losing only twice, but they have not lost home or away to Atletico since 1999. They also have Cristiano Ronaldo in stunning form, with the Portugal international taking his tally for the season to 30 goals at the weekend with a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Villarreal.
The first leg of the derby will be played at the Bernabeu, where Real have notched up 17 successive victories, on Thursday night. Also on that evening Almeria and Deportivo meet at the Estadio de los Juegos Mediterraneos. The former, who host Mourinho's men in La Liga at the weekend, have never before reached this stage of the cup.
Leaders collide, Navas warning
The other two quarter-final first legs will take place tomorrow night, when league leaders Barcelona host Segunda Division pacesetters Real Betis, and holders Sevilla travel to Villarreal.
Like Real, Barça go into the match with confidence soaring having won 21 of their last 26 matches while drawing the other five. They also boast five players who were named in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI for 2010, including the three players who were shortlisted for the prestigious individual award, which saw Lionel Messi come out victorious ahead of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Betis, the only non-top-flight team left in the competition, are four points clear at the top of the second division standings, and knocked out Getafe in the previous round of the cup. Confidence is also on the up at their city rivals Sevilla, who make the trip to Villarreal on the back of a four-match winning streak - having lost six and drawn the other of their previous seven games.
Looking ahead to tomorrow's match at El Madrigal, Sevilla winger Jesus Navas said: "The cup has given us a lot of joy and we need to continue with the same attitude as in previous years, against a team are doing very well. We have to be very focused as Villarreal play very nice football and we have to try to ensure they are starved of possession."