An open game at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night essentially closed the door on Valencia's chance of causing up a cup upset as Real Madrid sealed a 2-0 win. Jose Mourinho's side is now 90 minutes away from a probable semifinal clasico -- unless Malaga has since Sunday figured out a way to put the brakes on the juggernaut of Tito Vilanova's Barcelona.
Valencia arrived in the capital in high spirits after a run of three league victories that has the club banging on the door of the European spots. But the referee, according to Valencia's players, coach and club representative Fernando Giner, robbed the visitor of the chance to leave the Bernabeu via the main gate in the manner of a matador.
"As [Angel] Di Maria said, there are errors that are errors. There were four offsides that were extremely questionable. We were clearly wronged."
Valencia striker Roberto Soldado, a product of Real's youth system, was even more rounded in a post-match interview with Spanish television: "Referees are scared of going against the big sides."
The veracity of that statement is a question that will likely flop onto the desk of the Professional Football League in the coming days. Valencia coach Ernesto Valverde was sent off late in the second half for his crisp observations on the officials' performance, although he kept his counsel in the press room after the match. An unsuccessful penalty appeal did little to appease the visitor's sense of injustice.
But despite Soldado's broadside, fortune generally favors those that hit the target. Possession was split almost exactly down the middle and Valencia mustered 18 shots to Madrid's 17. However, only five of those drew Iker Casillas into action. The Real captain had little to do as the visitor spurned several gilt-edged chances; Jonas, clean through and with plenty of goal to aim at, was stared down by Casillas and fired wide. Earlier, Casillas denied the Valencia winger with a reflex save. He may be experiencing a dog day afternoon, but there is no doubt Casillas still a long way from the autumn of his career.
Real tested Vicente Guaita with more frequency and a surging run from Michael Essien started the move that ended with Karim Benzema slotting the ball beneath the Valencia keeper for the opening goal. Los Che could have no complaints about that. An Andres Guardado own goal in the second half compounded Valencia's misery.
Real director Emilio Butragueno observed after the game that Guaita "had kept Valencia in the tie," and he wasn't far wrong with the stopper making a string of decisive interventions. The impressive Ever Banega was the fulcrum of Valencia's forward thrust and had luck -- or the officials -- been on Valencia's side, Valverde would have had the industrious Argentinean to thank.
The sides meet again at the weekend in the league and it will be a feisty affair with the host aiming to maintain momentum in the chase for the Champions League places, and the visitor aiming to not slip further back in its pursuit of an automatic qualifying spot.
The return leg is next week at Mestalla, and although the usual sound bites about taking one game at a time, etcetera and so on will be trotted out before the weekend, half an eye will be kept on the health of returnees Gonzalo Higauin and Marcelo in Valencia. A potential match-up against Barcelona is a golden chance to turn Real's season into meaningful silverware; victory in the cup would not taste as sweet were it not at the expense of the eternal rival. The cup semifinals are slated for January 30 and February 27. Real plays Manchester United for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals on February 13 and March 5.
Mourinho won the King's Cup in his first season in charge, and added the league last year. Real fans want nothing more than for a hat-trick of trophies to include the long-sought "decima". The King's Cup final is on May 18. If Mourinho is to return to England in the summer, he would doubtless prefer to be king for day at the FA's glittering stadium on May 25 than wherever the LFP elects to hold this year's showpiece. But a final chance to put one over on Barcelona if he should leave will be motivation enough for players and coach to give Valencia a torrid evening next Wednesday.
"Now we have to think about the league game," said Giner. "We will rectify our errors [in the cup match]. Those that weren't ours we can't do anything about. I'm convinced we will make it very difficult for Real Madrid to go through to the next round."