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Friday, January 13, 2012
Updated: January 14, 12:24 PM ET
King's Cup appeal grows in Spain


"Why can't the league be this much fun?" wondered a commentator during a midweek King's Cup match. He was watching Mallorca against the visiting Real Sociedad. The home side had gone a goal behind after a quarter of an hour, leaving it trailing the Basques 3-0 on aggregate and needing four goals to go through. Mallorca duly banged them in during seven first half minutes -- one from Chori Castro compounding the misery of Real goalkeeper Eñaut Zubikarai -- and then added a couple more after the break to complete a 6-1 rout, Real's heaviest cup defeat since Barcelona won by the same margin in 1968.

This season's cup competition is proving to be the most exciting of the millennium so far. This is largely due to two factors that have lent the tournament a little more prestige than it used to enjoy. First, as Espanyol president Ramon Condal admitted this week, it offers a route into European competition for sides who do not traditionally qualify through league position. Second, Real Madrid deigning to take the cup seriously since José Mourinho took over has done the competition no harm at all. Before its triumph last year, Real had not won since 1993 and Mourinho quickly identified the domestic knock-out format as his best chance of picking up a trophy in his first season. He had also no doubt taken note of his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, sealing his own marching orders by underestimating Alcorcón in the 2009 competition. The suburban Madrid side then languishing in Segunda B thrashed Real 4-0.

So, it was little surprise that Mourinho decided to take no chances in Real's second-leg match at Málaga, into which he carried a 3-2 advantage. Fielding a strong team and not playing expansively at all, Real eked out a 1-0 win courtesy of Karim Benzema, who scored his 17th of the season two minutes after taking the field. The Frenchman is rapidly becoming Real's most important player this season, a factor not entirely unconnected with Cristiano Ronaldo's current dark mood. The Portuguese forward has been the subject of boos from sections of the Bernabéu support that feel Ronaldo loses interest in games where he is not the center of attention. His refusal to celebrate Real's fifth goal against Granada in the league win was followed by increasingly desperate long-range efforts against Málaga, although he did produce a smart save from Willy Caballero with a tricky header. But just now, everything Benzema touches turns to gold, and so it proved when his own speculative strike inexplicably slipped through Caballero's grasp and crept over the line.

Ronaldo will have a perfect chance to win back the adoration of the fickle Real faithful next week when Barcelona comes to town for the eighth clásico of the Mourinho/Guardiola era. Barça had pretty much ensured its passage to the quarterfinals by thumping Osasuna 4-0 at Camp Nou, in a match now dubbed 'flugate' after it was announced Leo Messi would not play through illness. The Argentinean did, though, take the field in the second half and scored twice to add to Cesc Fàbregas' brace and effectively end Osasuna's run in the competition. As the Pamplona club's president, Patxi Izco, drily noted after the game: "If Messi had a stomach ache then my balls were aching, too."

In the return leg, a second-string Barça was sufficient to win 2-1 to set up next week's clash with Real Madrid. The only bad news for Pep Guardiola was the loss of Andreu Fontás for the season with a knee injury. With Maxwell freshly departed for the riches of PSG and Seydou Keita off to the Africa Cup of Nations, Guardiola is somewhat short at the back.

Espanyol, meanwhile, came with two minutes of being knocked out of the competition by second division Córdoba, which won the first leg 2-1 in Andalusia. Espanyol starlet Álvaro Vázquez, the hero of last weekend's Catalan derby, scored twice inside 20 minutes to hand the home side the advantage and Didac appeared to have sealed the tie 15 minutes later with a third. A goal either side of halftime from Córdoba swung momentum back to the lower leaguers, who would have progressed at 4-4 on aggregate via the away goals rule. Cue Vázquez, who scored with a beautiful lob two minutes from time to cap a rather fine week for Espanyol.

Next up for the periquitos is this year's romance team, lowly Mirandés of Segunda División B Group II. Mirandés, with a budget equivalent to a week's wages for a top-flight player, dumped Villarreal out in the last round -- costing Juan Carlos Garrido his job -- and gave Racing a hiding in the first leg in Miranda de Ebro. The competition's top scorer is Mirandés forward Pablo Infante, who bagged two against Villarreal and one in both games against Racing. A 1-1 tie in Santander was enough to send Mirandés into the quarterfinals, where coach Carlos Pouso hoped his side would get Espanyol instead of Córdoba: "It's a first division side and it'll be more fun for our fans."

On Mirandés' side of the draw are Mallorca and Athletic, after The Lions mauled Segunda B side Albacete. The Manchegan team -- of which Andrés Iniesta is the major shareholder -- had held Bilbao to a goalless tie in the first leg but was undone by an atypically swashbuckling performance from Marcelo Bielsa's sometimes stodgy Athletic. A deft chip from Mikael Susaeta, Ander Herrera's wonder strike and a backheel by the lumbering Gaizka Toquero all illuminated Sán Mamés as Athletic progressed in some style. "This game was an exception," said a pragmatic Bielsa afterward.

Squaring up to the winner of the clásico will be the winner of the Valencia derby. Levante crushed Alcorcón 4-0 to set up a clash with its neighbor, which suffered an almighty final fling at Sevilla. One goal to the good from the Mestalla leg, Roberto Soldado put Valencia ahead in the second half and all seemed set for Unai Emery's team. But Ivan Rakitic pulled one back almost immediately before the unfortunate Víctor Ruiz chested the ball into his own net on 91 minutes to give Sevilla a 2-1 lead on the night. Needing one more with seconds to go, Freddie Kanouté rose to meet a cross but could only watch as his headed effort skimmed narrowly wide.

Whichever side reaches the final from the bottom half of the draw will certainly have earned it. The more open top half could spring any number of surprises, although perhaps not the one practically an entire country is rooting for: Mirandés, cup finalists and Europa League entrants.