COPA DEL REY

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Madrid derby takes deserving spotlight

Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo will attempt to win his second Copa del Rey title with Real Madrid on Friday night.
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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MADRID, SPAIN

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Spanish football’s end-of-season bash is a classic in the making as Real Madrid host neighbors Atletico Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. It’s a Copa del Rey final likely to reverberate long after one side's captain is handed the trophy by King Juan Carlos I.

While battles between Madrid and Barcelona have dominated La Liga in recent years, the rivalry within the Spanish capital has deeper roots. In the 1930s and 1940s, Atletico were top dogs before their more financially and politically powerful neighbors pulled ahead. But even still, the city's scrappier underdog has won three of the four previous “derbi” King's Cup finals.

Such history means Madrid is pretty evenly split between Blancos and Rojiblancos, with many families containing supporters of both sides. Even the royal palace is divided - crown prince Felipe is an Atletico fan, while his father favors Real.

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These are diversions but they have added color to this week's build up to the game in Spain. While Madrid boss Jose Mourinho has dealt with the continuing divisions inside his own club, Mourinho's most recent falling-out, with fellow compatriot Pepe, has been particularly badly timed as an injury to replacement Raphael Varane means fourth-choice Raul Albiol will now partner Sergio Ramos at the back for the final.

The issue again highlighted the fault lines within the Bernabeu locker room and it followed on reports that current Paris Saint-Germain boss Carlo Ancelotti had already been offered Mourinho's job for next season. The Portuguese, who is now almost out of friends in Spain, ducked Thursday's pregame press conference, where Ramos expertly batted away questions about any internal conflict.

“The rumors are not important, what is important is the group, Real Madrid and [Friday’s] game,” Ramos said. “When you are playing a final you must forget about all that. We have prepared very well. We are ready to go out and win another trophy for Madrid.”

Where his manager was a question he did not answer.

Such confidence chimed with a view among some pundits that Atletico are not a serious threat. The rojiblancos matched their neighbors 60 years ago, but have now gone 25 games and almost 14 years without a derbi win, as the clubs' annual budgets - $156m to $650m , respectively - have grown further and further apart. $110m signing Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, has a perfect winning record against Atletico since joining Madrid four years ago.

And, the defeats are getting more painful for Atletico. Last month, at its Estadio Vicente Calderon, Mourinho rested Ramos, Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso due to a looming UEFA Champions League semifinal against Borussia Dortmund. Rojiblanco hopes were raised, especially when Radamel Falcao scored inside three minutes – and then dashed by a farcical own-goal equalizer. Madrid eased to a 2-1 win.

Atletico fans have preferred this week to forget that record, and remember its history as a cup team. During Diego Simeone’s 18 months in charge, it has claimed the Europa League and

European Supercup trophies, with crushing final scorelines over Athletic Bilbao (3-0) and Chelsea (4-1). It also won the last Copa decider against Madrid – 2-0 at the Bernabeu – in 1992.

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Simeone stressed these results when speaking to reporters at Atletico's press event on Thursday evening.

“They are better than us, but over one game everything is different,” said the Argentine skipper. “They did not make us favorites against Bilbao, nor against Chelsea and in the end we did it.”

Hopes of pulling an upset rests squarely on the shoulders of Falcao, who scored in both those finals and who has also hit the net in his three derbis to date. On Thursday, the Colombian hitman dismissed speculation of a summer transfer, while admitting he thrived on the pressure of such huge games.

“Finals always have a lot of tension, but you must enjoy the experience,” Falcao said. “While giving the best you can for yourself and for the team. Most people are picking Real Madrid as favorite because of its budget, for the players it has, but that doesn't bother us,'' Falcao said. ''We will rely on the faith we have in ourselves.''

Indications are that visiting rojiblanco supporters, hopeful of enjoying the experience, will likely outnumber Real Madrid’s support at the Bernabeu on Friday. Madrid's own players have admitted this will look unusual, but vowed not to be distracted from the task at hand.

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'It's a trophy that we are very excited to win,'' said Ronaldo. ''We know it will be a hard-fought match against a rival of the same city and it will be quite a show for the fans. ''I go into the match with a sense of great responsibility. I face all games the same way, but this is a final. It's a special match, but my ambition is always the same, to help Real Madrid the best way I know how, by playing well, scoring goals, and setting up my teammates.''

Even with Atletico's cup pedigree, Falcao in form and Madrid's squad disunited, it is hard to argue with Cristiano's opinion. Recent history, squad strengths, bank balances and even the king on the trophy favor Madrid. By all accounts, the white half of the Spanish capital should be celebrating on Friday night.

If not, Mourinho will have nowhere to hide.

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