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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Copa del Rey format weighted too heavily in favour of Barcelona, Real Madrid and the other big clubs

Ahead of the second leg of the last-16 stage, many of the smaller clubs providing the romance to this year's competition are all but out of the tournament - their tasks made even harder by having to play away in the return match.

Atletico Madrid, in red and white stripes, were far too strong for Lleida, in blue, in the first leg, rendering the return leg in the capital all but academical. Alejandro Garcia / EPA
Atletico Madrid, in red and white stripes, were far too strong for Lleida, in blue, in the first leg, rendering the return leg in the capital all but academical. Alejandro Garcia / EPA

When Formentera began their long journey by boat, plane and coach to the Basque Country for Wednesday night’s last-16 Copa del Rey second leg against Alaves, they knew it was likely to be their last in this season’s competition.

Formentera, from a 12-mile slip of an island which sits four miles off the coast of Ibiza and doesn’t have its own airport, were only promoted to Spain’s regional third tier for the first time this season.

With a population which shrinks to only 11,000 out of the tourist season, the remote, idyllic location which became popular with hippies in the 1970s has never been a football hotbed.

Formentera’s tiny Sant Francesc Xavier home didn’t even have spectator stands before this season, but they have built temporary ones which were full for the last-32 first leg visit of Athletic Bilbao, for so long the team which had won the most Copa Del Reys.

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When the game finished 1-1, Formentera were given little chance of progressing. The Copa del Rey is unfairly structured so that the higher ranked teams play at home in the second leg. Athletic were expected to win easily back at San Mames, yet they lost 1-0 in the shock result of the Spanish season so far.

The win brought Formentera more Basque opponents, last season’s finalists Alaves. The Alaves players shook off their sea legs to win 3-1 last week in the first leg, surely putting the tie even beyond Formentera.

There have been other shocks. Fellow third tier side Lleida, from Catalonia’s third biggest city, knocked out Real Sociedad to earn a last-16 tie with Atletico Madrid. Lleida lost the first leg 4-0 at home last week, a game which saw the return of Diego Costa. The second leg is now surely academic.

Alaves reached the final of last season’s competition, where they were beaten by Barcelona, the team who have won the past three Copa del Reys.

Spain’s biggest sides take the competition seriously and it irks some Real Madrid fans that the competition was the only one they didn’t win in 2017.

Madrid play at home to second tier Numancia, who had knocked out Primera Liga side Malaga. Madrid beat Numancia 3-0 away last week. It is inconceivable that Zinedine Zidane’s side won’t go through, but it would have been more interesting if the second leg was in Numancia.

Second level Cadiz beat fellow Andalusian side Real Betis to prevent a last-16 derby tie with Sevilla, their next opponents. Cadiz lost 2-0 at home and must go to Sevilla on Wednesday night.

Again, it would have been more interesting Cadiz were at home. All four of the teams paired with lower league opponents won their opening legs comfortably, all but killing interest in the second leg. Why not let the draw of the cup decide who plays home or away first?

Whatever happens, any side is likely to meet Barcelona, the team who have dominated the competition and now boast a record 29 titles. Barcelona are at home to Celta Vigo on Thursday evening, with the game 1-1 from the first leg.

Celta, who knocked Real Madrid out last year, are underdogs against Barcelona who are unbeaten in the Primera Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey this season.

But they will be looking for a repeat of last season when they beat Valencia away in the last-16 and then Real Madrid away in the quarter-finals.

Celta will also be pleased that the injured Philippe Coutinho isn’t making his debut. Celta’s star player, Iago Aspas, knows how good he can be from his time at Liverpool.

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