Changing format brings back drama in Laliga

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If Spanish soccer organisers were craving more drama when they decided to shake up the Copa del Rey then they certainly got what they wanted this week after Real Madrid lost a seven-goal thriller and Barcelona were knocked out by a last-gasp strike.

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Yet there also may be a tinge of regret at the national federation as they contemplate semifinals shorn of stardust without Real, Barca and Atletico Madrid for the first time in 17 years.

Athletic Bilbao, who beat Barca 1-0 at home on Thursday, are the biggest team left, followed by Real Sociedad who beat Real Madrid 4-3 away. Granada are also through after knocking out holders Valencia, along with second division Mirandes.

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Led by president Luis Rubiales, the federation last year approved changes to the Cup, axing two-legged ties in every round apart from the semifinals.

The old format was skewed in favour of the bigger clubs, who could rest players for a first leg and swallow defeat before calling on their stars to turn the tie around in the return game.

Barca, for example, had reached the semifinals for the last nine seasons and monopolised the trophy between 2015 and 2018.

There were occasional upsets, like Real’s 2009 exit to Alcorcon, the season after losing to Real Union, but these proved increasingly rare.

Ties are now settled in one match, leading to dramatic scenes such as third-tier Cultural Leonesa knocking out 10-times winners Atletico and Mirandes dumping out Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal.

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In the last 32, Real Madrid were made to sweat for a 3-1 win at newly-formed Unionistas de Salamanca and Barcelona trailed tiny Ibiza for most of their match before eventually winning 2-1.

The new format has also restored many fans’ faith in Spain’s oldest competition, returning it to the lofty status it used to enjoy.

Barca and Real both fielded their top players in their quarterfinal ties against Athletic and Sociedad respectively and the San Mames and Bernabeu stadiums were packed and rocking, making victory even sweeter for the winners.

“This result means so much to us, we put on a spectacle of football in front of a full Bernabeu crowd against a team of this quality. You can imagine how we feel,” said Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil after the 4-3 win in Madrid.

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Athletic’s match winner Inaki Williams, whose 93rd-minute header deflected into the net off Sergio Busquets, added: “There have been a lot of surprises in this season’s Cup and sometimes you have to have faith and play with your heart.

“The fans deserved this moment after the way they supported us.”

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