By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) – Barcelona made smooth progress in their bid for a fourth King’s Cup triumph in eight years when Munir el Haddadi and Neymar struck in a 2-1 success at Athletic Bilbao in their quarter-final, first leg on Wednesday.
Barca have beaten Bilbao three times in the final since 2009, including last season, and the Spanish and European champions made light of the absence of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez to gain the upper hand ahead of the return game at the Nou Camp in a week’s time.
Messi was rested as a precaution after he had to come off at halftime in Sunday’s 6-0 victory at home to Bilbao in La Liga and Suarez was suspended for his part in a fracas after the last 16, first-leg game at Espanyol.
Bilbao, who had goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz sent off in the fourth minute on Sunday, made a strong start at their San Mames stadium in the Basque country but fell behind following a flowing Barca move in the 18th minute.
Arda Turan sent Ivan Rakitic clear down the right and his perfectly-executed cross was turned past Bilbao goalkeeper Iago Herrerin by Munir, his fifth in the competition this term.
Slapstick defending allowed Barca to make it 2-0 seven minutes later. Herrerin fluffed a clearance and Aymeric Laporte slipped over, leaving Neymar to tap the ball into an empty net.
Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen pulled off a fine reaction save to keep out Sabin Merina’s 81st-minute header but Bilbao pulled a goal back a minute from time.
Forward Aritz Aduriz found space in the penalty area and his first-time shot flew into the corner.
Ter Stegen had to be alert again a minute later to deal with a deflected effort that he tipped over the bar.
“The Bilbao goal could complicate the tie but we played a great game and now we have to close it out in the return,” Neymar told Spanish television.
“But their goal could be dangerous as they are a good team with players who can be decisive,” added the Brazil forward. “So we will have to be careful.”
Celta Vigo, who have never won Spain’s domestic knockout competition, kept alive their hopes of progressing when they held Atletico Madrid, the 2013 winners and La Liga leaders, to a 0-0 draw.
Celta had the better chances at their Balaidos stadium in Galicia and Atletico captain Gabi had to clear the ball off the line around 10 minutes from time.
Iago Aspas came close to scoring for the home side in the seventh minute but his first-time shot was well saved by Atletico goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya.
On Thursday, Gary Neville’s Valencia, whose seventh and most recent Spanish Cup triumph came in 2008, host Las Palmas.
Sevilla, the five-times winners who last won in 2010, play at home to second-division Mirandes, the only non-La Liga side left in the competition.
Barca, the record winners, were up against a Bilbao side whose 23 triumphs, the most recent in 1984 against Barca, are only bettered by the Catalan club’s 27.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)