Football: Cup final place at stake for in-form Barcelona

Football: Cup final place at stake for in-form Barcelona
Barcelona's (L-R) Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez.

MADRID - Barcelona will be targeting a tenth consecutive victory and taking a big step towards the Copa del Rey final when they host Villarreal in the first leg of their semi-final clash on Wednesday.

The Catalans have clicked into form ever since the club seemed on the brink of an institutional crisis following a dressing room revolt after a shock 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad to start the year.

Even more judicial activity against the club and its president Josep Maria Bartomeu for tax irregularities in the signing of Neymar hasn't disrupted Barca's rhythm.

The Brazilian forward has played a starring role in the run alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

All three were on target in Sunday's 5-2 win at Athletic Bilbao as Barca closed to within a point of La Liga leaders Real Madrid, taking Luis Enrique's men's tally to 34 goals in their last nine games.

"We are getting better every day, but we need to continue working hard to improve," said Neymar, who has scored 23 times in 27 appearances this season.

"More than just the goals, the most important thing is to help my teammates. We can't stop now, we need to keep going."

Captain Xavi Hernandez returned to the side for Barca's first league victory in the Basque country since 2010 and the veteran is determined to keep their momentum going on all fronts, with a return to Champions League action against Manchester City also to come at the end of the month.

"We can't slip up. We already did that at Anoeta (against Sociedad) and now we feel great and depend on ourselves in the league. We are in great form and we need to make the most of it," said Xavi.

Villarreal have already suffered at the hands of Messi and Neymar in recent weeks, but they gave Barca a scare as the hosts had to twice come from behind to win 3-2 at the Camp Nou on February 1.

That was the Yellow Submarine's only defeat in their last 20 games, but coach Marcelino has warned that he will make changes from his side's 2-0 win over Granada with a top four finish in La Liga still their priority.

"We are in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and still in the Europa League, therefore we have to rotate players," he said.

"The key to this Villarreal is the squad, it is our biggest strength." Enrique is also expected to rotate slightly with Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano likely to come into the side that started in Bilbao.

In the other semi-final, Espanyol travel to face Athletic Bilbao later on Wednesday.

Both sides are in mid-table in La Liga and know their only realistic chances of European football next season come from winning the Cup.

Athletic defender Xabier Etxeita will be free to play despite being sent-off against Barca as his suspension only applies to La Liga, but the Basques are likely to be without the injured duo of Ander Iturraspe and Mikel Balenziaga.

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