Copa del Rey: Barcelona rebounds to take two-goal lead on Real Sociedad

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Barcelona used their Copa del Rey semifinal to get back in the win column, but in the process of posting a win over Real Sociedad, the Blaugrana failed to quell linger doubts. Needing an own goal and an Iñigo Martínez red card on their way to a 2-0 result at the Nou Camp, Barça eventually claimed a commanding lead after leg one, even if La Real nearly snatched a lead just before halftime. For a team that plays as much to a standard as against an opponent, Wednesday’s performance was a mixed result.

Their victory was secured just before half time when Sergio Busquets gave Barcelona a 44th minute lead – a score that sparked protests that led to Martínez’s dismissal. Moments earlier, Real forward Carlos Vela had come close to scoring but was obstructed by Javier Mascherano penalty in Barcelona’s penalty area. Though Vela still got a shot off (one that drew a kick save from Pinto), Sociedad players were left incredulous at the lack of a whistle. The missed opportunity appeared close to Martínez’s mind when Busquets put them behind two minutes later.

After a half playing against 10 men, Barcelona statistical edges were gaudy. They kept 81 percent of the ball, held La Real  to one shot on goal, and finished with +23 advantage in overall shots (26-3). Against a Sociedad team already set up to play on the counter, Barcelona went the match’s final 47 minutes without allowing a shot.

Despite those advantages, the only goal Barça was able to find in the second half required Real Sociedad’s help. Attempting to clear a ball Alexis Sánchez put off his team’s post, midfielder Gorka Elustondo hit Zubikarai in the back, the resulting ball ending up Sociedad’s goal. Up 2-0 after an hour, Barcelona would cruise through the rest of the game, outshooting Sociedad 7-0 over the final 30 minutes.

Up two and having preventing La Real from finding an away goal, Barcelona will be heavy favorites to reach Copa’s final next week in San Sebastián. In the bigger picture, there were enough minor issues to fuel ongoing (if minor) questions about the Blaugrana. Though they nearly went up through Lionel Messi early, Barcelona also left the door open for Real Sociedad to strike first, something they nearly did just before half time. Though Barça eventually broke through, they also failed to put the tie away after playing a man up over the final 56 minutes. They finished the match with a valuable two-goal lead, but the second goal came after some freakish fortune.

All teams have their off days, but for Barcelona, this off day comes on the heals of a loss to Valencia. At a time in the season when Gerardo Martino’s team should be building for challenges from Manchester City (Champions League), Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid (Copa and league), Barcelona has lost some of their mojo.

They’re still outplaying most of their opponents, but they’re not meeting the standards we typically associate with Barcelona soccer. Until they can ascend to that level, it’s unclear Barcelona can be considered favorites to claim any of the honors they’re pursuing. Martino’s still got work to do

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

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Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.