Madrid hosts hurting Barcelona ahead of Man U trip

JOSEPH WILSON Associated Press Published:

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Five days after its biggest win at Camp Nou in more than a decade, Real Madrid hosts Barcelona against Saturday in the Spanish league with its decisive Champions League match at Manchester United looming.

Madrid's defense did a masterful job of neutralizing Barcelona forward Lionel Messi on Tuesday, and its counterattack speared by Cristiano Ronaldo did the rest as the Portugal forward scored twice in the 3-1 win to put Madrid into the Copa del Rey final.

Injured Madrid captain Iker Casillas, out healing a broken hand, said he hoped the victory marked "a turning point" for Madrid with Barcelona.

The game at the Santiago Bernabeu transcends the league title race, which Barcelona has well in hand with a 12-point lead over second-place Atletico Madrid and Madrid a further four points adrift.

Another dominant victory for Madrid could signal a shift in the balance of power between the two fierce rivals that Barcelona has had in its favor for the past five years.

Besides, there's no better way for Madrid to boost morale for its trip to United next Tuesday than a pair of strong showings against Barcelona.

Madrid will visit United with their last-16 series poised at 1-1, giving the English club a slight advantage having already scored away from home.

"We are strengthened by this win and are also more motivated going forward after not starting the league well this season," Casillas said. "We hope winning this series will mark a turning point for us and especially with Barcelona.

"We need to carry this win over to Manchester, where we also go in 1-1 and need to score while keeping a clean sheet. Manchester knows how to play football, it is a difficult ground and we need to carry over how we played today to Old Trafford."

Barcelona, meanwhile, is reeling after its worst week of results since former coach Pep Guardiola took over in 2008. Barcelona lost 2-0 at AC Milan in the first leg of its Champions League knockout series and six days later flopped to its biggest loss to Madrid at Camp Nou since a 2-0 defeat in April 2002.

Twenty head-to-head matches ago, a 4-1 loss in 2008 marked the end of the Frank Rijkaard era at Barcelona. The arrival of Guardiola, however, started Barcelona's most dominant run of its rivalry with Madrid, including a 6-2 win at Madrid and a 5-0 victory at Barcelona in the first "clasico" for Madrid coach Jose Mourinho.

But Mourinho looks to have finally figured out how to keep Messi in check and deactivate Barcelona's passing game by forging one of the most effective counterattacking teams in Europe.

This tactical advantage was perfectly clear on Tuesday. Ronaldo scored both goals on the break as Barcelona's defense was off-balance with numerous players near Madrid's area in a frustrated attempt to weave its signature passing web in close quarters.

Madrid has only lost once in its past seven meetings with Barcelona, and Madrid can solidify this trend with yet another commanding performance on Saturday.

Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said his team has not been in its best shape recently and that it was time to reflect on what has so quickly gone so wrong.

"We need to think a lot about these two games (against Milan and Madrid) in what we didn't do well and need to improve," Iniesta said. "We must recover the sensation of a team that is well structured and mistake-proof. I'm convinced that we will do so."

In addition to tactics, health has become an issue for Barcelona.

Messi had a fever on Wednesday and did not attend team practice, but the main problem for Barcelona is the absence of coach Tito Vilanova, who has been in New York since mid-January for treatment after having a second tumor removed from his throat in December.

Barcelona has only won five of 11 matches with Vilanova gone and assistant Jordi Roura in charge. It has become predictable in its lineups, and Roura's reliance on the same players has worn them down physically.

Barcelona president Sandro Rosell left for New York on Wednesday to meet with Vilanova personally to discuss how his treatment is progressing, and no doubt to talk about the unraveling form of the team.

If Barcelona falls again against Madrid, Atletico can reduce the gap to single digits when it visits fourth-place Malaga on Sunday.

Atletico earned its spot in the Copa del Rey final on May 18 against city rival Madrid by eliminating Sevilla on Wednesday.

Also on Saturday, it's: Deportivo La Coruna vs. Rayo Vallecano, Osasuna vs. Athletic Bilbao, and Valencia vs. Levante.

On Sunday, it's: Granada vs. Mallorca, Espanyol vs. Valladolid, and Real Sociedad vs. Real Betis.

Getafe hosts Real Zaragoza on Friday, while Celta Vigo is at Sevilla on Monday.