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Spain approves changes to Copa del Rey and Super Cup

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish soccer federation approved format changes to the Copa del Rey and the Super Cup on Monday despite opposition from the Spanish league.

The Copa del Rey will be played in single-match series until the semifinals, while the Spanish Super Cup will adopt a “final four” format with the top finishers in the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

The changes are expected to take effect at the beginning of next season, although the Spanish league could still appeal the federation’s decision, which was approved during its general assembly.

The Spanish league voted last week in its own general assembly not to support the changes, saying it should have been directly involved in the discussions.

The federation said the changes will help reduce the number of games for clubs and players.

Federation president Luis Rubiales said last week the entity was considering playing the new Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, prompting some criticism by human rights groups who have denounced conditions in the Middle East nation.

The competition has been played at the beginning of the season in a one-game final between the Copa del Rey and the league champions. The final four will now be played in January.

Last year’s final, won by Barcelona against Sevilla, was played in Tangier, Morocco.

The Spanish federation also approved changes aimed at giving more visibility and improving women’s soccer. The women’s league will have two divisions and a Super Cup will be created.

The federation said it will take actions to increase the number of professional women’s players and the number of girls involved in the sport.

Solari says Bale, Real Madrid ready for Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Everyone at Real Madrid, it seems, is fully prepared to face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinals.

Even Gareth Bale.

Bale’s commitment to the team has been called into question since he failed to celebrate his goal over the weekend, pushing teammate Lucas Vazquez away before heading back to midfield. His attitude sparked a wave of criticism, and rumors he was at odds with the rest of the team.

But with two consecutive matches coming up against Barcelona this week — the first on Wednesday with a spot in the Copa del Rey final on the line — Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari was quick to diffuse any notion of problems within the squad.

“We are 100 percent focused on tomorrow’s match,” Solari said Tuesday. “Bale and the rest of the players are fully focused. We are all united and we have the same goal, which is to make it to the final.”

Real Madrid has an away-goal advantage going into the match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium after a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou in the first leg three weeks ago.

Wednesday’s match will be the second of three between the rivals in less than a month. The teams will meet again at the Bernabeu on Saturday in the Spanish league, where Barcelona has a comfortable seven-point lead over Atletico Madrid and a nine-point advantage over Real Madrid.

Barcelona is the defending league champion, and it will be going for an unprecedented fifth straight Copa del Rey title. Madrid won the league in 2017, but hasn’t won the cup competition since 2014, when it beat Barcelona in the final.

Bale hasn’t played often as a starter with Madrid, losing his place on the lineup to young Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior.

Bale appeared to be upset when Solari chose Marco Asensio as the first substitute in the 2-1 win at Levante on Sunday. After seeing he was not picked, the Wales forward stopped warming up and went back to the bench, staying there for a few minutes until Solari finally asked him to enter the match.

He scored the team’s second goal from a penalty kick and did not celebrate, moving Vazquez away from him and only briefly touching hands with other teammates as he returned to midfield.

The image of Bale “escaping” from Vazquez made it on some front pages in Spain the next day, and forced Solari to evade several questions about him in his news conference on Tuesday.

Veteran left back Marcelo recently had talked about how he still can only communicate with Bale in English, and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois mentioned that the forward recently missed one of the group dinners because he wanted to go to sleep early.

Bale practiced normally with the rest of the squad on Tuesday, though, with nothing indicating he would not be included in the squad for the match. It wasn’t likely he would start, however. In the first leg, Solari began with Vinicius Junior in the lineup and Bale on the bench.

A player certain to start on Wednesday is Lionel Messi, who is coming off a stellar performance in Barcelona’s 4-2 win against Sevilla over the weekend, when he scored a hat trick and set up another goal to rebound from a series of poor performances. Messi did not play the entire first leg against Madrid because of a right leg injury.

Solari said there was no reason to fear Messi, regardless of how well he was playing.

“That doesn’t exist for those who compete in soccer,” Solari said. “Those who compete are always out there to battle.”

Messi back to his best ahead of games against Real Madrid

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MADRID (AP) With consecutive matches coming up against Barcelona, Real Madrid got a glimpse of a Lionel Messi that it would rather not see again this week.

After a series of lackluster performances, Messi had a stellar game against Sevilla in the Spanish league, scoring a hat trick and erasing any doubts about his form.

Messi regained his scoring touch just before the two decisive matches against Real Madrid – in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday and in the Spanish league on Saturday, both at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.

“When everything flows, things go well for us,” Messi said after the 4-2 win in Seville on Saturday, when he also set up a goal. “We were back to playing like we know how.”

Messi had struggled recently and had not performed up to his standards since getting injured at the beginning of the month. His right leg injury kept him from playing in the first leg against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey three weeks ago, when Barcelona was held to a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou.

The Catalan club went through a slump while Messi underperformed, winning only one of five matches and losing momentum ahead of the two matches this week. But with one of the best games of his career against Sevilla, Messi quickly put Barcelona back on track.

“We are just a small step away from another final,” Messi said. “It’s a match that is going to be very hard, against Real Madrid, at their stadium. But we are confident that we can go there and win it. Then we will start thinking about the league again. We are going to try to win everything.”

Real Madrid, on the other hand, is far from where it wants to be heading into the two games against its biggest rival.

Despite the advantage of having scored the away goal in the first leg, Madrid has not played well recently. It is coming off a demoralizing home loss to relegation-threatened Girona last weekend, and it struggled in a 2-1 win at Levante on Sunday, when it scored from two controversial penalty kicks.

Real Madrid had been in high spirits ahead of the first leg of the Copa del Rey, carrying a five-game winning streak in all competitions. It was gradually cutting into Barcelona’s lead in the league, but it will be nine points behind when the teams meet on Saturday. It also trails second-place Atletico Madrid by two points, and anything but victory in the league match will practically end the team’s title hopes.

Madrid players downplayed the team’s recent form and said they were fully prepared, even to face Messi at his best.

“We are ready for everything,” Madrid forward Vinicius Junior said. “Messi is an incredible player who does things that nobody else can do. But we are not afraid of him. Even though he is a great player, we have the best players in the world in our squad. We are excited to have these two `clasicos’ this week.”

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Valencia strikes twice late to draw Betis in Copa semifinal

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MADRID (AP) Kevin Gameiro scored in stoppage time as Valencia salvaged a 2-2 draw against Real Betis in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals on Thursday.

Betis took a 2-0 lead with a goal scored directly from a corner kick early in the second half, but the late goals gave Valencia the slight edge going into the return match at home later this month.

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Betis is hoping to be back for the May 25 final at its Villamarin Stadium in Seville, which saw a record crowd of 57,123 on Thursday. The other semifinal is being played by four-time defending champion Barcelona and Real Madrid, who drew 1-1 in their first leg on Wednesday at Camp Nou.

Betis opened the scoring with a goal by Loren Moron just before halftime, and veteran Joaquin Sanchez added to the lead with the rare corner kick goal less than 10 minutes into the second half.

The 37-year-old midfielder curled in a mid-height shot from the left corner and Valencia goalkeeper Jaume Domenech couldn’t get back in time to make the save before the ball crossed the goal line. The officiating crew initially let play continue, but a video review quickly confirmed the goal.

Russia forward Denis Cheryshev pulled one back for Valencia with a 70th-minute header after Gameiro’s cross, and the French forward evened the match from close range after a well-placed low pass by Rodrigo two minutes into stoppage time.

Valencia is back in the semifinals for the first time since 2012. It hasn’t made it to the final since it won the last of its seven titles in 2008.

Betis hadn’t reached the last four since it won the second of its two Copa titles in 2005.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

El Clasico: Real gets away goal in 1st leg Copa del Rey draw

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Real Madrid takes an away goals advantage away from its Copa del Rey semifinal first leg at Barcelona following a 1-1 draw in El Clasico.

The match was much closer than Barca’s 5-1 rout in La Liga player earlier this season, and Real led after six minutes through Lucas Vazquez.

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With Lionel Messi on the bench for the first 63 minutes, it was down to Malcom to level the tie with his 57th minute marker (below).

Vinicius Junior was perhaps the Man of the Match, helping to set-up Real’s goal.

The second leg is Feb. 27 at the Bernabeu.

Barca had more of the ball, and both teams attempted 11 shots.