Luis Enrique doesn’t usually give an opinion on cup draws which haven’t taken place, but on Thursday, smiling after his Barcelona side had beaten Real Sociedad 5-2, he broke one of his own rules.
“Of course I would like a Barca-Celta Vigo final,” he admitted in his postgame news conference after the Blaugrana had reached the Copa del Rey semifinal.
What he didn’t admit, though, was that he probably would have preferred to avoid Atletico Madrid. Instead, that is exactly what his Barca side got, with Celta paired with the unfancied Alaves. At least his dream of a May final against the side he coached for one season before taking on the top job at Camp Nou remains alive.
There is no doubt Barca would rather be in the Copa del Rey than out of it. They’ve won it 28 times, more times than any other team — including twice since Enrique took charge — and have now reached the semifinal for seven consecutive seasons.
However, a two-legged tie against a tough Atletico side raises some problems. For starters, Diego Simeone’s men have generated more than a few headaches for Barca in recent seasons. They clinched La Liga at Camp Nou with a draw in 2014 and have knocked the Catalans out of the Champions League in two of the past three seasons.
All of the meetings between the two sides have been physically draining, while they’ve become mentally draining recently, too. Atletico’s claim that Neymar’s style of play is provocative and the Brazilian’s subsequent strife with Juanfran is example enough of that.
When the two sides last met in the King’s Cup two years ago, temperatures ran so high in the second leg that two Atletico players were sent off, Neymar had to be taken off by Enrique to spare him an injury and Arda Turan — then dressed in red and white — threw his boot at the linesman.
On top of the wear and tear that those two meetings alone will produce, Barca now have seven games packed into February — a month which only has 28 days. Progress in the cup was always going to lead to fixture congestion, but two more games against Alaves — rather than Atletico — would have been much more welcome.
It’s not ideal for Atletico, either, and it’s tempting to suggest the big winners from Friday’s draw are the two sides’ title rivals Real Madrid and Sevilla. The Catalan press certainly think so.
“Real Madrid are the big winners from the semifinal draw,” Diario Sport’s Lluis Mascaro wrote. “They’re specialists when it comes to getting beneficial draws — even when they’re not in them. While Atletico and Barca are tiring each other out, Madrid get to play Celta in the league in the middle of their two games against Alaves.”
Barca can only focus on themselves, though. They end January this weekend with a trip to Real Betis and then start February with the first leg at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico. They’ll then end the month at the Vicente Calderon, too, albeit in the league.
In the middle of those two games they will host Atletico in the return leg at Camp Nou, while they also have to travel to France for their Champions League last 16 first leg game against Paris Saint-Germain.
The league games are a little less demanding, but when fixture congestion, injuries and rotations kick in, anything can happen. Athletic Bilbao and Leganes at home and Alaves away, therefore, become far from easy matches — especially if Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets don’t make quick returns from their respective injuries.
But while February promises to be a testing month, it could also be a rewarding one. It could be the month when Barca cement their chances of winning another Treble — “it would be ridiculous if that wasn’t the target,” Enrique has said.
With five wins in a row in all competitions, they’re starting to find form at a good time. Progress in the Copa del Rey, a good result in Paris, continued consistency in the league and a healthy, well-rotated squad would set things up nicely for March.