MADRID, April 19, 2011 (AFP) - Barcelona defender Carles Puyol is in a battle to be fit for the Copa del Rey final on Wednesday, the second of four clashes with Real Madrid inside 18 days which will go along way to deciding both clubs' fortunes this season.
It is perhaps an indication of the domination of the top two in Spain that their league meetings have become crucial in deciding the title while they have also both reached the final of the cup.
|Real Madrid's Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho gives a press conference at the Mestalla Stadium, in Valencia, on April 19, 2011, on the eve of the Spanish Cup final match against Barcelona. AFP|
Next week they will be back in action in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
While some have claimed that the frequency of the games has taken away the intrigue from the meetings there was certainly plenty of anticipation ahead of the first head-to-head last weekend in the league which ended in a 1-1 draw.
The debate since then has been about who can claim the psychological edge from that match as although the result practically guaranteed Barca the title, Real no longer considered it a realistic target, and so it was more about the performance.
Barcelona remain eight points clear in the league after the game at the Bernabeu where Leo Messi put them ahead from the penalty spot before Cristiano Ronaldo replied also with a spot kick.
It also marked the return of Barca captain Puyol who missed the last three months with a knee injury.
With Eric Abidal also out after having an operation to remove a tumour from his liver, Barça have struggled at the back.
Coach Pep Guardiola has lost confidence in Gabriel Milito who has had a long battle with injuries over the last few seasons and so Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano have filled in at centre half.
It was a welcome comeback then for Puyol ahead of key games but it turned sour when he pulled up in the second half with a hamstring strain. However, it is not as serious as first thought and there is a chance he will be ready for Wednesday.
"I am very happy to be back and I only have a muscle problem now which has nothing to do with the knee injury. It was the perfect place to return at the Bernabeu and it all went fine until I felt the back of my leg," said Puyol.
"We will have to see how it goes whether I'll be alright for the final but at the moment it is looking difficult."
Real coach Jose Mourinho fielded a defensive side at the weekend which included Pepe in midfield, whose job was to keep close to Leo Messi.
"We went out from the start looking to win the game and I thought we played well. Everyone plays to their strengths and they (Real) are very strong at the back and they looked to counter-attack where they are strong also," Puyol added.
"I don't think that game will influence the next one as a final is always different. We are looking forward to it. It should be a big occasion with two of the best teams in the world."
Real are expected to play a similar style in the final where they will again look to stifle Barca's midfield creativity. The only change is likely to see Mesut Ozil coming into the forward line at the expense of Karim Benzema.
"I think that it was quite an even game at the Bernabeu but the dismissal of Raul Albiol allowed them to dominate a little. We have a few days to prepare for the final and we hope to be all recovered and fully fit for the game," said Real defender Sergio Ramos.