Real Madrid may be playing Cultural Leonesa, but all eyes are on Barcelona
Fixture congestion is a constant pebble in the boot of top-flight clubs and the Copa del Rey has increasingly been subject to calls for a reduced one-game affair instead of the traditional two legs, with elitism far from the only driving force.
In recent years smaller clubs have punched above their weight on their own turf, only to be knocked clean out of the ring in the second round. Segunda B side Villanovense held Barcelona 0-0 last season in the 4,000-seater Romero Cuerda only to be thrashed 6-1 in Camp Nou. In 2013-14 Olimpic de Xativa, then also in the third tier, recorded the same result against Real Madrid. The return leg provided no fairytale for the minnows.
On level ground, in stadiums considerably smaller than Barcelona's Mini Estadi (capacity 15,276) and Real Madrid's Alfredo di Stefano (12,000) where the reserves ply their trade, anything is possible. Over two games, whatever lavishly sponsored superstars are paid to claim: "nothing is impossible."
There have been exceptions. Every year at the start of the Copa proper, in the round of 32 when Primera sides join the fray, the 2009-10 Alcorconazo warrants a mention. And rightly so. It remains one of the most famous victories in Spanish football history as then-Segunda B side Alcorcon ambushed Real Madrid 4-0 in a suburb of the capital most of the visiting side would not have heard of.
Florentino Perez's face was a picture to behold and Manuel Pellegrini, despite leading Madrid to second place in La Liga behind Pep Guardiola's Barca with a club-record points total, did not escape the presidential axe at season's end.
As Zinedine Zidane's side prepare to host Cultural Leonesa on Wednesday, the panorama could not be more distinct from the days when Real routinely did not bother with the Copa, the "Pavones" featuring more regularly than the "Zidanes."
That silent club policy was shelved when Jose Mourinho arrived at the Bernabeu in 2010 and targeted the Copa as an achievable piece of debut-season silverware: Real had not won the competition since 1993 until the Portuguese eyed the domestic pot.
Zidane avoided his own Alcorconazo in the Reino de Leon in the first leg where his side posted a 7-1 victory illuminated by Nacho's incredible strike and four assists from James Rodriguez.
With that considerable credit in the bank, the Frenchman will welcome the visit of Cultural as a timely chance to hone his side ahead of Saturday's Clasico against Barcelona. Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo have been left out of the squad, keeping the available core of his side fresh for the trip to Camp Nou.
The Real manager will also have the opportunity to fine-tune potential starters for the Barcelona game. Casemiro has not played since Sept. 18 and Zidane will be eager to see how the Brazilian fares against a tough-tackling side who did exceptionally well in the opening half-hour in Leon. Pepe will be afforded at least 45 minutes for the old warhorse to grease his joints and Raphael Varane, who missed the victory over Sporting last weekend through injury, will stretch his legs in case he is required in Catalonia.
Zidane has called up Castilla players Martin Odegaard, Alvaro Tejero, and his son Enzo for the match but he may opt to leave them on the bench in favour of placating James with another 90 minutes alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marco Asensio, who was one of Real's stand-out performers in the return fixture but who has been sparsely used since.
In the case of Kovacic inclusion is complimentary: the Croatian has performed excellently in recent weeks and will be first choice to anchor the midfield with Modric in Camp Nou if Casemiro fails his audition on Wednesday through lack of match fitness.
Against Cultural, Zidane can permit himself a fair margin for error. With the possibility of leaving Camp Nou nine points clear in La Liga leeway becomes a more precious currency and the Real boss will recognize the need to field his best team in Barcelona, rather than the one that appeals most on paper. Rafa Benitez fell into that trap last season and did not last long after a 4-0 defeat in the Bernabeu.
Cultural, though, warrant a professional approach. Alongside Real they are the only undefeated side in Spain's top four tiers this season. Zidane said in his prematch conference that he was not looking beyond this game and had a duty to field a competitive side, play well, and win. He was of course providing the expected sound bite and will be considering his options for the Clasico throughout.
Cultural stand as much chance of going through as Real's current crop of Galacticos have of discovering life on Mars. Of greater concern this week is making sure the "extraterrestrial" Leo Messi and company do not cut the gap at the top of La Liga. Cultural are simply a stepping stone for Zidane to base his Saturday selection upon.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.