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Barcelona eye clasico with Real Madrid, but Rayo the focus for now

Luis Enrique says he may play Luis Suarez and Javier Mascherano in their Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Villareal.

Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao have a lot in common. Between them they have won 49 of the 112 editions of the Spanish Cup, and they will meet again in this year's final on May 30 to decide who takes the 50th.

That game will be a repeat of the 2009 and 2012 finals that Barca won, and there should be scenes that are similar to those friendly occasions when fans mixed happily, united in their opposition to a shared enemy in the Spanish capital.

Leaving aside the complexities of Spanish politics, Barcelona and Bilbao fans have a common enemy, Real Madrid, and that could work in Barca's favour this weekend as the Blancos visit the cup finalists less than 24 hours before Barca host Rayo Vallecano in the Camp Nou.

With just two points separating leaders Real and second-place Barca at the top of La Liga, any points dropped before their showdown on March 22 are crucial, and with lowly Levante visiting the Santiago Bernabeu next weekend, Saturday seems to be Barca's best chance of making up further ground before that clash.

Luis Enrique's side, of course, can't take their eye off the prize, and in Rayo they will face a dangerous opponent that play a measured game. Unconventional Rayo coach Paco Jemez has devoutly instilled in his side the need to pass the ball out from the back, and that won't change Sunday in the Camp Nou.

Rayo sit in 11th place, just one place and one point behind Athletic Bilbao, which reached the Cup final with a 2-0 win over Espanyol on Wednesday night, with a 53,000 capacity crowd to celebrate that feat and roar them on against Madrid in their new stadium. But it is not hard to imagine which of La Liga's top two sides has the more difficult task of winning their game this weekend.

Barcelona will have to stop Spain's most in-form striker, Alberto Bueno, who hit four goals in just 14 minutes in Rayo's 4-2 win over Levante on Saturday. Bueno is now the top scoring Spaniard in La Liga, but Enrique can call on his own array of attacking talent in Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.

Bueno says his side will go out carefree at the Camp Nou and try to go for the game, but he also went as far as to pronounce who he would prefer to win the title.

"I like Barcelona more. For me, they are all exceptional players and have something that little bit different," he said.

Meanwhile, in Bilbao, Real Madrid will have to stop another in-form Spanish forward, Aritz Aduriz, who helped his side to the final with a goal in each leg of Athletic's semifinal win over Espanyol.

With just a trip to Eibar after Sunday's game to come before the clasico, and the little matter of the visit of Manchester City in the Champions League just four days before the visit of Real Madrid, the Blaugrana have a run of four matches that will determine their options to win more than just a 27th Spanish Cup this season.

Barcelona may have to go into all those games without the services of Sergio Busquets, who damaged his right ankle in their 3-1 semifinal win against Villarreal on Wednesday. For now, he is definitely out of the Rayo game.

While a Spanish Cup success is a fine trophy to have, La Liga and the Champions League have been marked as the main objectives this season, and successfully coming through the trio of games before the clasico without any further injuries will be key.

In Javier Mascherano, Barca have the perfect replacement for Busquets' deep-lying midfield role. At times like these, Enrique's squad-rotation policy comes to the fore as he decides whether to slot either Jeremy Mathieu or Marc Bartra into the centre of defence, safe in the knowledge that both have enough games behind them to be ready.

The use of Mascherano all season in either Busquets' role or at the back has given Enrique the added flexibility he has wanted to try different formations, and that tactic may help him again as injuries deplete the side in the final stretch of the season.

If the forward three are all deemed fit and fresh enough to face Rayo, the key to victory is surely just a case of giving them the time and space to play the game in Rayo's half of the pitch. They were deadly enough again on Wednesday to kill off any hope Villarreal had of reaching their first cup final.

Meanwhile, many Cules will be paying attention to their Cup final opponents and willing them on to a hoped-for victory Saturday, with the clasico looming.

Dermot lives in Spain, where he freelances for several publications, including AFP and the Press Association. Follow him on Twitter @dermotled.


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