Real Madrid is not going to catch Barcelona in the La Liga standings. This isn't an opinion, it's essentially a fact at this point. After 25 games, Barcelona is 16 points ahead of Real Madrid on the table.
With 13 games left on the La Liga schedule, Barca would have to have a meltdown of legendary proportions for Real Madrid to crawl back into the title picture. It's not happening.
And that's why Tuesday's El Clasico, the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal between these two Spanish superpowers, is so vital for Real Madrid.
For a team like Real Madrid, a domestic cup is probably a pretty mild consolation prize to the league title, especially in a season when your league rival is so far ahead of you in the standings. But advancing past Barca is still a prize in itself, and would signal a potential Champions League run for Los Blancos.
Nothing is guaranteed in that regard, of course. Real Madrid still has the second leg against Manchester United to deal with, though Los Blancos have to travel to Old Trafford, and the Red Devils already managed an away-goal 1-1 draw.
The scenario is the same for Real Madrid against Barcelona at Camp Nou, with the first leg also ending in a 1-1 draw. It certainly won't be easy for Cristiano Ronaldo (39 goals in 42 appearances) and Co. to advance in either tournament.
Imagine what a brutal two weeks Real Madrid could have. After facing Barca in the Copa del Rey, the team returns home for a La Liga El Clasico. After that, it's Champions League time against Manchester United.
For Madrid, then, the Copa del Rey draw isn't just about advancing; it's about starting a difficult three-game stretch with some positive momentum. If Madrid is knocked out of the Copa del Rey and Champions League and fails to close the gap against Barca, the season, for all intents and purposes, will be over.
And a season should never be over for Real Madrid in early March. Never.
Los Blancos have been playing better of late. They've lost just one game since January, winning eight games and drawing four. Even with two tough road tests, I would expect to see the best Real Madrid has to offer.
Remember, few teams are more dangerous. Barcelona knows all about the Los Blancos' counterattack, while Manchester United knows it will have its hands full against the classy lineup Real Madrid trots out.
But one game at a time. What must Real Madrid do to win the Copa del Rey semifinal?
Obviously, against Barcelona, disrupting the midfield and playing stout defense is the first priority. Barcelona is going to generally win the possession battle, but if you can clog up the midfield and reduce the cracks in your defense that Barca thrives by finding and exploiting, you've got a shot.
And as always, taking the opportunities presented on the counterattack is vital.
Few teams in the world, if any, are more dangerous in space than United, in no small part due to Ronaldo, but also because the speed of Ángel di María, the creativity of Mesut Ozil and the excellent movement of Karim Benzema.
Getting an early goal at Camp Nou would be huge, but preventing Barca from dominating in the early stages should be the first priority. Real Madrid has to take the crowd out of the game early, establish its own rhythm and strike when the opportunity presents.
Los Blancos have struggled in La Liga play by its own standards, but there is still hardware out there for the taking. It won't be an easy task, but Real Madrid must move on in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday.
A failure to do so could trigger a devastating two weeks that essentially ends the season far too early for Los Blancos.
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