MADRID: Lionel Messi admits that Barcelona need to raise their level after two below par performances for tonight’s El Clasico in the Spanish Cup against a Real Madrid side desperate for a morale boost.
Barca made an almost faultless start to the season only dropping points in the league before Christmas with a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, while they also lost against Celtic in the group stage of the Champions League.
But now signs of tiredness are beginning to set in.
“Against Madrid we will have to produce our best football as we will be against a great rival,” said Messi, ahead of the semi-final showdown in the Catalan capital with the scores 1-1 from the first leg at the Bernabeu. “We need to be at our best in order to get into the final.”
The teams then go head-to-head again in the league at the weekend but with Madrid trailing Barca by 16 points in the table there is little more than pride at stake.
While they were expected to roll over AC Milan last week in the Champions League in typical fashion, in the end they were unable to break down a well-organised but not remarkable defence as they lacked the movement and the speed of passing. Even four-times world player of the year Messi was largely anonymous as they had plenty of possession but were well contained.
“We need to get back to playing how we were doing before and not think about what happened in Milan. It is difficult for us not be distracted and although we didn’t play well then we shouldn’t allow it to get to us,” said Messi.
“The cup and the Champions League are down to us and we aren’t concentrating on the opposition. Physically the team is in good shape and I am used to playing in all the games.”
For Madrid it is the first of two make or break games with the other coming in the Champions League against Manchester United.
They struggled once again away to Deportivo la Coruna at the weekend with a weakened side and Cristiano Ronaldo was among those brought on in the second half to turn the game around and give them a 2-1 win.
“We have a big squad and the coach (Jose Mourinho) wanted to put out the freshest players,” said Gonzalo Higuain. “What was important was the victory and now we can think about the game against Barcelona.
“We are really up for the game and fully motivated as we know that the next few weeks will be crucial for us with the cup and then the Champions League game.”
Meanwhile, playmaker Kaka is hoping to be involved in the tie against Barcelona.
The Brazilian scored and helped set-up Higuain’s winner in their win against Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday and having started three consecutive league games for the first time this season he said he can feel his confidence returning.
“I don’t want to talk again about the return of Kaka but I feel much better,” he told reporters. “I am there if the manager needs me and I need to be well-prepared for the crucial part of the season.”
Jose Mourinho will be able to recall Sergio Ramos after he was suspended at the weekend, whilst Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso returned to training on Sunday and are expected to be fit to travel.
Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Fabio Coentrao are also expected to return after starting Saturday’s match on the bench.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2013.
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