- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 10, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Goals are guaranteed when a resurgent Barcelona hosts a fearless Villarreal in the opening leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal on Wednesday.

Lionel Messi has exploded for 10 goals in a nine-game winning streak for Barcelona, and will face a talented and attack-minded Villarreal side that twice led Barcelona before falling 3-2 at Camp Nou two weeks ago.

Crosstown rival Espanyol will visit Athletic Bilbao in the other semifinal.

Here are some things to know about the Copa del Rey’s final four:

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MAJESTIC MESSI: Messi is playing at his very best: Torturing defenses with his on-ball speed, scoring with both legs, and continually improving his passing to get all his team involved in Barcelona’s overpowering attack.

He has 33 goals in 31 games this season. He scored one goal and took part in four more on Sunday in a 5-2 thrashing of Bilbao to ensure Barcelona pulled to within one point of Real Madrid in the Spanish league.

Barcelona’s win streak has silenced talk of a team crisis, and rumors that coach Luis Enrique’s job was in danger.

“In football you can’t live off what you did in the past, nor what will come in the future, there is only the present, and now we are focused on Villarreal,” Enrique said. “They have players who can do us damage when we accumulate many of our players in their territory.”

NO PUSHOVER: Villarreal has more than enough weapons to challenge for a good result at Camp Nou in its first appearance in the cup semifinals.

The team was on a club record 18-game winning streak before losing to Barcelona on Feb. 1., and it is still in the fight for a fourth-place finish in the league that will earn a Champions League berth.

Coach Marcelino Garcia has forged one of the most exciting teams in La Liga based on a quick transition from defense to attack. Skilled forwards Luciano Vietto and Denis Cheryshev are having breakout seasons.

“We won’t settle for a draw and are going there with high ambitions,” Cheryshev said. “We have nothing to lose and we are aware that this could be historic for the club. There won’t be any lack of effort from us.”

ESPANYOL’S ANSWER: Espanyol has found its stride after growing pains under new coach Sergio Gonzalez.

Despite back-to-back league losses, the Barcelona-based side is playing well with a solid defense supporting its in-form tandem of strikers.

Sergio Garcia, Felipe Caicedo and Christian Stuani have combined for 30 goals in the league and cup so far.

Espanyol, however, will be without first-choice holding midfielder Jose Canas because of a muscle injury in his right leg.

BASQUE BLUES: Bilbao is the only one of the four teams that has struggled to reach this stage.

Traditionally strong at home, it has recently proven vulnerable at its new San Mames Stadium.

Barcelona’s rout was Bilbao’s fourth loss in six homes games.

Advancing to the final may be Ernesto Valverde’s only chance to ensure he reaches the end of the season. His team is in 13th place in the league, and just four points above the relegation zone.


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