Valencia, Betis, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semis...
We’ve been left with two mouth-watering Copa del Rey semi-finals to look forward to. The draw will take place today at the Benito Villamarín, with the first leg to be played next week and the return leg in the last week of February with the final set for 25 May. We witnessed four exhilarating quarter finals – a tremendous comeback by Valencia against Getafe which still resonates in the memory; Betis’ tie against Espanyol went to extra-time with a happy ending for the southerners who will host the final in May. Barça turned their quarter final around after losing the first leg 2-0 to Sevilla. And last but not least, Real Madrid won convincingly at Montilivi and much of that was down to Karim Benzema, who is fast becoming the best news at a Madrid side brimming with newly-found optimism.
Benzema steps up
Madrid are looking like themselves once again. They’re playing well, looking strong, morale is high and they have, as I’ve just mentioned, Benzema playing out of his skin. The cat which Mourinho alluded to has grown into a Bengal tiger. He’s stepped up to claim his place in the Madrid hierarchy and accepted all of the responsibility that goes with it. That meek and indolent Benzema - a stylish striker - but seemingly devoid of ambition, who would prowl in the shadow of a towering Cristiano Ronaldo, is now a tremendous player. He still has, as [ex-basketball coach Pedro] Ferrándiz told me right from the start, "feet like Rudolf Nureyev". But he also has awareness, ambition, energy, accumulated experience at an age when he can really start enjoying his football. He has been the crutch which has allowed Solari to steer the team out the depths of their recent crisis.
Solari is another key mover and shaker at Madrid right now. He took the job at a difficult moment, after several other coaches had been ruled out. And he hadn’t exactly excelled in charge with Castilla. He started off with a series of relatively easy games, which gave him the chance to look at the team and make several decisions – without harming the team’s results. Now, with his search for the missing links over, you can see that he’s firmly taken the reins of the squad; he made the right call with Vinicius and along with Pintus, the casualty room has been clearing out. That has enabled him to give minutes to some and rest others which, in itself is an incredibly difficult task because whenever anyone is left out, there is always an explanation demanded (even with Isco, he got the measure of him almost as soon as he arrived in the job). Now the group transmits desire and optimism. And even the goals have started flowing freely once more. Happy days are here again.