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Love's labour's lost for Real

After years of spurning the Cup, team is one match from possible 'clásico' final

Real Madrid and Barcelona inched, and strode, respectively toward a King's Cup final clásico on Wednesday, a fixture that has not taken place since the two teams met in what was then called the Estadio Luis Casanova in Valencia.

Barcelona, which again seduced its Camp Nou faithful with a devastating display of attacking soccer, practically assured its place in the final, to be held in the same stadium - now known as the Mestalla - as the 1990 final. After just 30 minutes of the first half Leo Messi had struck twice, David Villa had added another and Pedro Rodríguez popped up with a fourth to put the tie beyond Almería, appearing in the first semifinal in the club's history.

Although Barça removed its foot from the gas in the second period, Seydou Keita finished the job as he had when Betis was the visitor in the previous round: 5-0 to the host and surely game over.

Betis, the second-division leader, rolled up its sleeves and bloodied Barça's nose in the return match in Seville- just Pep Guardiola's second defeat of the season. But the 3-1 scoreline was still not enough to overturn the deficit accrued in the first leg. For Almería the task is even less surmountable. A Primera División team José Luis Oltra's team may be- although for how much longer is a matter that will be played out over the remaining 18 games of the season- but Barça stuffed eight past Almería in the league in November.

While Barça buckled its swash in the Catalan capital, Real engaged in a bad-tempered affair with Sevilla in Andalusia that was resolved by a fine strike from Karim Benzema, prolific in the cup, anemic in the league, and a spot of goal-line footsie by Álvaro Arbeloa. The replay of Luis Fabiano's shot, which clipped the Real defender, rolled toward the goal, caressed the line and was nudged out by Arbeloa, will be shown ad nauseam and will give Sevilla's blood-and-thunder president José María del Nido plenty to growl about ahead of next week's return match in the Bernabéu. But the letter of the law is clear: the entire ball must cross the line for a goal to be given. It did not, and the matter should end there.

It will not, which will add a pinch of spice to next week's encounter to add to the simmering broth served up by Del Nido this week, when he promised to place "anti-Valdano" security guards around the referee's room. Sevilla accused the Real general director Jorge Valdano, of trying to speak to the referee at half-time in the 2004 semifinal. A controversial video released before the game also stoked the fire between the two clubs. At the end of the spot, a message in Portuguese flashed on the screen, promising to leave somebody trophyless this season.

"I've armor-plated his contract and paid him a bonus," said Del Nido of the author of the video. "People have been talking about Sevilla for three days. It's worth a lot in marketing."

The King's Cup, a competition that was taken less than seriously by Mourinho's predecessors, is also worth a lot in marketing to Sevilla, which is chasing European qualification through La Liga but would gain instant access to the Europa League if it reaches the final; Barcelona's qualification for next season's Champions League is the surest bet in sport.

But neither should Mourinho's hunger for a trophy- any trophy- be underestimated. La Liga is a tricky prospect, requiring Real win all its remaining games, beat Barça by five goals or more in April's clásico, hope at least one other Liga side holds Guardiola's team to a tie while simultaneously overhauling a 22 goal-difference advantage.

The Champions League is Real's obsession, but it has been a fickle mistress in recent years. A trophy in the old Casanova stadium has become a lusty siren to Mourinho and his charges.