Bernabeu balancing act for Valverde with Copa del Rey final ahead

Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will play a fascinating game in La Liga on Sunday night that could be influenced by next weekend's Copa del

Rey final.

Real Madrid go into the weekend with an eight-point lead over FC Barcelona at the top of La Liga. Athletic Bilbao travel to the capital in fourth place and trying to qualify for next season's UEFA Champions League, while next weekend sees the Basque side play Mallorca in the Cup final.

The Cup has become an obsession for 23-time winners Athletic Bilbao, who last won the title 40 years ago. Since then, they have played and lost six Cup finals, including two in two weeks in 2021, and the desire to win the trophy is palpable in Bilbao.

Coach Ernesto Valverde has to carry out a balancing act, deciding whether to protect key players, such as Nico Williams, Gorka Guruzeta and Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta, from injury, or to play his strongest starting 11 to try and ensure another week in the top-four.

Valverde could also decide to start reserve goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala in goal, ahead of Spain international Unai Simon. Agirrezabala will play in the Cup final and Valverde may want to give him game time ahead of next weekend.

Speaking to the press on Friday, Simon was clear in his opinions. "This is a great test for what lies ahead of us next week, because the final is going to be maximum intensity. What a better rival could we have before the final, as both matches will be intense," commented the goalkeeper.

Simon also took away significance from the fact Real Madrid will be without the suspended Vinicius Jr. "They still have [Jude] Bellingham, Rodrygo and [Federico] Valverde, who are all world-class players," he commented.

Real Madrid will also be missing Eduardo Camavinga, who misses out after twisting an ankle while playing for France, but the good news is that Eder Militao could return for the first time since tearing his cruciate knee ligament in Bilbao in the opening game of the season.

Real Madrid won that game 2-0, but Athletic Bilbao were struggling with injuries at the time and are now much stronger. The question is: Will they field their strongest side?