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Barcelona plays Villarreal

sports Updated: Jan 21, 2008 20:39 IST

AP
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FC Barcelona and Villarreal meet in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, an attractive matchup that will determine the cup favorite following the exit of league leader Real Madrid and defending champion Sevilla.

Following a slight dip in form, Villarreal has recovered with three straight wins in all competitions, beating Valencia 3-0 in the league on Saturday.

Villarreal, which has never won the Spanish cup, goes into the first leg of the quarterfinals in good form, helped by Turkey striker Nihat Kahveci scoring three goals in his last two league matches.

"We showed that we're upping our play again and that we feel even better against the top level teams," Villarreal midfielder Robert Pires said.

Barcelona, which eliminated Sevilla in the last round, is coming off a 1-0 win over Racing Santander in the league. Thierry Henry continued his good run with a sixth league goal Sunday but it wasn't until the appearance of Lionel Messi _ who missed over a month with a leg injury _ in the 66th minute that the 24-time cup champions truly threatened.

At least playmaker Ronaldinho, who has missed the last six games to injury, is on the road to return.

The Brazil star trained alongside teammates on Monday, when midfielder Edmilson also returned after recovering from a foot injury on Jan. 9.

Although Atletico Madrid lost the city derby to Real Madrid on Sunday, it can rebound at Valencia on Wednesday.

Atletico, a nine-time cup winner, isn't panicking following the 2-0 loss despite a tired squad with the club also involved in the UEFA Cup.

"We always said that we wanted to be between third or fourth (in the league) and in the fight for the Copa del Rey and now some important games are coming up," Atletico captain Maxi Rodriguez said.

Thiago Motta was effective in his return Sunday, which was only the Brazilian midfielder's fourth game since his transfer from Barcelona because of various injuries.

Valencia hasn't got past the quarterfinals in the last two years _ and isn't playing like a trophy-winning side.

The club has managed only six of a possible 27 points since Ronald Koeman took over, the 18th-worst total in the league over that period.

However, it has been strong in Copa del Rey, though victories over 16th-placed Real Betis and third-flight side Real Union won't compare to a fourth-place Atletico.

Also Wednesday, Getafe comes into its match against 2003 champion Mallorca following a 3-2 victory Saturday against Sevilla _ the club that beat it in the final last year.

Getafe will pay special attention to Mallorca striker Daniel Guiza, who has scored 11 league goals, including three in his last two games.

Mallorca knocked Madrid out of the competition 1-0 in the Spanish league champion's only home defeat this season.

In Thursday's other first-leg match, Racing hosts Athletic Bilbao.