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Newly-renovated Copa del Rey Plays to Zidane’s Strength

Unionistas CF v Real Madrid - Copa del Rey: Round of 32 Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

After the José Mourinho era, the Copa del Rey took a back seat in Real Madrid’s season priorities. While the team battled to stay at or near the top spot of La Liga, midweek Copa games were for fringe payers and homegrown talent to get playing time. Unfortunately this formula hasn’t produced the success Madridismo demands. However, the Real Federación de Fútbol Español (RFEF) boldly revamped the 117-year-old tournament to increase parity and excitement last summer, which could play to Zinedine Zidane’s strength. Last week’s victories in Salamanca and in Valladolid are a precursor to a domestic double.

Prior to this season, the Copa del Rey was a two-leg knockout tournament with random draws that occurred from December to February. With the exceptions of the 2011 and 2014 title wins against Barcelona, Real Madrid suffered early exits against lesser rivals, most notably Celta Vigo in 2017 and Leganés in 2018. The team prioritized La Liga over Copa due to Champions League qualification and significantly higher television revenue prize money. Now that only one game with 30 minutes of extra time and a penalty shootout will decide who advances until the semifinals, the margin for error in Copa is close to zero.

If you peek at the starting lineup against Segunda B upstarts Unionistas de Salamanca last Wednesday, seven of the starters were Champions League-winning veterans. In previous visits to lower division rivals, bench-warming substitutes would take the field with Castilla players. This was utilized due to the benefit of a second leg to reverse an unfavourable first-leg result and to cement passage to the next round. After Zidane took his finals record to 9-0 after lifting the Spanish SuperCopa trophy in Jeddah earlier this month, he is preparing the team for each upcoming Copa round as if it was a “final”. Coincidentally, the team has been riding a white-hot 19-game unbeaten streak since October.

Before the road to Istanbul returns next month, Real Madrid is eyeballing a deep Copa run while occupying the top spot in La Liga. If Zidane maintains the rotation cycle between veterans and top substitutes without sustaining any more injuries, the team will reach another final in April. During this transitional year between decades, Zidane has the opportunity for the next three seasons to add domestic cup glory to his Champions League and Club World Cup triumphs. The next Copa rival in the round-of-16 is no slouch. Real Zaragoza is a six-time Copa winner. This second division opponent awaits the Kings of Europe in their den of over 33,000 lions in La Romareda on Wednesday. It is time to avenge the 2004 final loss and 2006 semifinal elimination to the Zaragozans.

- Christian Paredes (@Xian_D_Paredes) is a Founding Member and former Chairman (2012-2016) of La Peña Madridista Sur de California (@RmSurCalifornia)

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