La Liga

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal, centre shoots to score during a Copa del Rey quarter final, 1st leg soccer match against FC Barcelona at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid Wednesday Jan. 18, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The biggest story of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, a matchup between Barcelona and Real Madrid, dubbed El Clasico, ended with a 2-1 Barcelona victory in this first leg.

Éric Abidal notched the first and Carlos Puyol headed in the second to seal the deal against their longest rival.

Cristiano Ronaldo managed a goal for Real Madrid, but last year’s champions will have to try to take the second game of the series or risk elimination.

Just under five months since the infamous Spanish tournament started, there are only eight teams left. The Copa del Rey, or King’s Cup in English, is currently in the quarterfinals stages. The Copa has been around since 1902, however this is the 108th year of play.

The nine-month tournament which started last August and ends in May is comprised of 84 teams exclusively from Spain and is intended to crown the nation’s best team. The tournament is a combination of four different leagues: La Liga, Segunda División, Segunda División B and Tercera División. La Liga, the best league in Spain, doesn’t come in until the Round of 32 while the lower three leagues battle for a spot to just advance and play for a shot at the final phase in the first three rounds.

Starting in the Round of 32, each matchup consists of a home-and-home series, the overall winner of which moves onto the Round of 16 where they also play two games per matchup.

Currently the tournament is in the quarterfinals with Espanyol matched up against Mirandes, Athletic Bilbao with Mallorca, Valencia with Levante and Real Madrid with Barcelona. Only three games in this round have been played, Espanyol already beat Mirandes 3-2 in their first leg, Athletic Bilbao beat Mallorca 2-0 and Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-1 on Wednesday.

The biggest story of this round was yesterday’s “El Clasico,” the matchup between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The two longtime rivals played last year in the finals of the Copa del Rey. Real Madrid took the title, making it their 18th championship in the history of the tournament. Barcelona, who currently holds the most championships wins at 25, looks to make up for their loss last year with another championship run this year. One more win against Real Madrid in these quarterfinal games takes them to the semifinals where they look to move onto the finals and get their 26th championship win.

Another big story is Mirandes. This team from the community of Castilles and Leon is the only team still alive that isn’t from La Liga. They are in the Segunda División B, which had 26 representatives in the initial field of 84. The last time a non-La Liga team won Copa del Rey was in 1927. The team, Real Union, was also from Segunda División B.

With only eight teams left, it’s getting close to naming the champion of the Copa del Rey. A total of only 10 more games have to be played until the champion is crowned. The final two teams will play either May 20 or 25 to conclude this season’s edition of the Copa del Rey.

Printed on Thursday, January 19, 2012 as: Barcelona tops Real Madrid in first leg

FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi from Argentina celebrates after scoring against Zaragoza during their Spanish La Liga match on Sunday. Messi is on his way to becoming the world’s best player.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

There’s little doubt that Lionel Messi is currently the best player in the world, but is he on course to become the best soccer player ever?

The diminutive Argentinean won the most recent Balloon d’Or, awarded to the world’s best player, and he is a frontrunner to take the award for a second straight time. His speed is unmatched, while his goal-scoring as of late has been astounding. In the past week alone, the 22-year-old winger scored seven goals.

He started the week off with a hat trick in the second half of Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Valencia last Sunday. Going into their midweek clash against VFB Stuttgart in the Champions League, Barcelona were level on aggregate 1-1. Messi initiated Barcelona’s incredible performance against Stuttgart as he scored the first goal, played a key part in teammate Pedro Ledesma’s goal and then scored once more in the 4-0 thrashing of the German club.

After Barca’s win, Stuttgart coach Christian Gross made a startling assessment, comparing Messi to Diego Maradona, one of the best players ever and the current national coach of the Argentina squad.

“They started coming at us so quickly, and we tried our best to stay with the pace,” Gross said. “[Messi] is the best player in the world. He’s a fantastic talent, and it’s incredible to think he’s only 22. We can now compare Messi with Maradona.”

As if his week couldn’t get any better, Messi had one final masterful performance left in him, and it may have been his finest of the season. Barcelona were away at Real Zaragoza, needing a win to keep pace with La Liga leaders, Real Madrid. Messi got Barcelona off to a firing start in the sixth minute when he headed a bullet past Zaragoza keeper Roberto Gago. Messi’s second goal was the goal of the match. He bounced off a defender near midfield before going on one of his trademark runs, dodging two defenders and shooting brilliantly past the keeper into the bottom right corner.

Messi still had a few tricks left for the La Liga bottom-dwellers. He completed his hat trick in the 78th minute when he got a great pass from Andres Iniesta on his left foot and put a stunningly placed shot past Gago. After Zaragoza answered with two goals of their own to make things interesting, Messi put the game away for good. He controlled a long pass perfectly at the edge of the box and completely turned around one Zaragoza defender before faking out another, and he was then dragged down blatantly in the penalty box. In a show of ultimate class, Messi, who usually takes the Barcelona penalties, conceded the opportunity this time to striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had been struggling with his form as of late, and the Swede converted the penalty for the 4-2 win.

Barcelona are now tied with Real Madrid at 68 points but trail by two in the goal differential column. The Catalan club has two La Liga fixtures in the upcoming week before heading to the Emirates to take on Arsenal in the quarterfinals of the Champions League next Wednesday.