Cristiano Ronaldo spared Real Madrid's blushes with a late strike at Celta Viga to swing momentum back toward the capital club ahead of the return leg of its King's Cup last-16 tie at the beginning of January.
Speaking after the match, José Mourinho said he felt that some of his players were not particularly enthusiastic about playing — hardly surprising with the Galician climate at its intemperate norm. It seemed at times the rain was thick enough to stop the ball in flight. "Some of the players have disappointed me. Some of the players didn't want to play tonight. It's raining, it's cold, it's the cup... I don't want to mention any names but I think [Álvaro] Morata should have played. He is green, raw, but he has ambition and he has the right to make mistakes. Sometimes I make the right decisions and sometimes the wrong ones. Today I made a bad decision."
Celta, a solid unit under Paco Herrera, made very few. The home side operated its offside trap to good effect and took its chances at the other end, few and far between though they were. Mario Bermejo fired Celta into the lead in the 54th minute, squeezing a shot under Antonio Adán. Cristian Bustos made it two with a screamer 20 minutes later before Ronaldo, who slipped the offside net expertly just before the final whistle, fired home to make it 2-1. "I prefer to lose here today rather than in the league," admitted Mourinho. "But Real Madrid is still favorite to go through. I'd like to think we can beat them."
Last year's beaten finalist, Athletic Bilbao, was dumped out of the tournament by third-tier neighbor Eibar in a postponed second-leg, last-32 match at San Mamés. After a stolid 0-0 tie at Eibar, Mikel Arruabarrena's penalty was enough to send the visitor through on away goals despite Aritz Aduriz leveling with two minutes to play.
Some players didn't want to play. It's cold, raining, it's the cup..."
"There is no such thing as being unfairly knocked out of the cup," said Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa after the game. "There are no excuses to explain the reality that we have to face up to today. In any case, I take full responsibility, although I cannot explain it."
This latest setback seals Athletic's hemi-annus horribilis. Since the summer -- when Fernando Llorente announced he wanted to leave and his fellow World Cup-winner Javi Martínez did -- Athletic has unraveled faster than a lunatic's loom.
Bielsa, affectionately known as "El Loco," seems to have lost the locker room after the publication of his post-match rants after Athletic's inglorious cup finals against Atlético in Europe and Barça domestically. Llorente was booed by his own fans on Wednesday night and Bielsa will have shot to the top of the bookmakers' list of coaches whose days are numbered.
Eibar will play Málaga in the last 16, with the winner going to face either Córdoba or Barcelona, which won the first leg match 2-0 at the Nuevo Arcángel. Leo Messi, far from taking his foot off the gas after setting a new record for goals in a calendar year, bagged both to take his tally for 2012 to 88.
Several teams other than Barcelona practically assured a place in the quarterfinals after the first-leg matches. Among them was Atlético, which dispatched Getafe 3-0 at the Calderón despite losing top scorer Radamel Falcao to a muscle strain before the match. Diego Costa scored twice and Filipe Luis added the third as Atlético seeks another final appearance.
It may well yet face Sevilla, which won the 2010 title at Atlético's expense. The pair are projected to meet in the semifinals. Sevilla took a large step toward that date with a 5-0 thumping of Mallorca at the Ono Estadi. Barring a miracle at the Sánchez Pizjuán, Sevilla will play the winner of Levante-Zaragoza in the quarterfinals.
That match was scheduled for late Thursday, to be followed by the week' s final tie, second-division Las Palmas against Betis.