The Copa del Rey final promises a great deal this term, as the sub plots alone make for an intriguing battle where there is more on the line than just the famous trophy. Barcelona will look to salvage a disappointing season and send off their much loved manager with a trophy, whereas Bilbao will look to make up for their disappointing Europa League defeat to Atletico Madrid.
Bilbao and Barcelona are historically the two most successful sides in this competition with 23 and 25 wins respectively. However Athletic, winners of the first ever Copa del Rey, has not won the trophy since Javier Clemente’s aggressive 1980’s side lifted the trophy in ‘84.
The sides last met in the 2009 final where Barcelona prevailed with ease, 4 goals to 1, with Yaya Toure’s equalising wonder goal worth re-watching again alone.
The game will be hosted in the Spanish capital, at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderón stadium, a venue which adds another layer of intrigue to this clash of the two municipalities. Barcelona is the capital of the fiercely proud Catalan region and Bilbao is the capital of the Basque country, both regions which claim a degree of independence from mainland Spain and its federal capital Madrid. Bilbao’s independence even stretches to the football club, with the famous cantera policy of only fielding players who have grown up in, or more recently have family ties to the region.
Barcelona have certainly had the tougher route to the final, narrowly beating Real Madrid in the quarter-finals and then Valencia in the semis, 3-1 over two legs. Bilbao alternatively faced Segunda Division B side Mirandes in the semi finals, comfortably winning 8-3 on aggregate over the two legs.
Athletic’s recent form has been sketchy and is reflected in their La Liga position, marooned in mid-table as a consequence of the cantera policy, meaning the small but talented squad can struggle when fatigue and injuries set in, or if top scorer Fernando Llorente is not at the races.
Bielsa admitted personal failure following his sides hugely disappointing Europa League final against Atletico. Yes, Radamel Falcao was in a ruthless mood, and most teams would have struggled to deal with the Colombian in that mood. Nevertheless, Bielsa admits that he played into Atletico’s hands, saying “We wanted to play a certain way but we didn’t create the ideal scenario for this, our opponents managed to turn the scenario into one which suited the way in which they aspired to play.” Tiredness and a lack of cutting edge in forward areas made for a lethargic display which, if replicated against Barcelona will certainly end in another runners up medal for the side from Bilbao.
Barcelona has uncharacteristically suffered from a similar malaise this season though. Without the goals of David Villa the onus has fallen too often on Lionel Messi, with little support coming from his teammates. The gap between Llorente and Messi and their team mates are huge, Messi with 50 to Alexis Sanchez’s 12 league goals this season and Llorente’s 17 to Susaeta’s 6.
Bilbao were soundly beaten by Real Madrid on May 2 to allow Madrid to lift the title. Defensive lapses, such as a comically silly handball early in the game from Javi Martinez which was let off by a similarly stupid (and arrogant) penalty kick from Ronaldo, led to a comfortable 3-0 canter to victory for Real. Athletic followed this up with a 0-0 draw with Getafe, finishing a poor run of three results which started with a 2-0 defeat to relegation candidates Real Zaragoza.
The two finalists league battles this season ended 2-2, with a late Messi goal salvaging a point for Barcelona, and a 2-0 home win for Barca against a Leones side without key players Llorente, Iker Muniain, Ander Hererra and Fernando Amorebieta, but in which they managed to keep Barcelona’s share of the ball to a relatively paltry 55%.
Marcelo Bielsa will have to quickly turn things around if he is to avoid a huge double disappointment after he has established Bilbao, and himself, as global favourites this year. The team has drawn wide support in this country in recent months after strong showings against Manchester United, where Llorente was inspired, and for a more ‘English’ style of play than the Barcelona model, which the national team so attempts to replicate. The maverick Bielsa has been rewarded for this mix of dogged determination and some sumptuous build up play by links to the vacant Chelsea post and with Barcelona, before Tito Vilanova was awarded the role.
Bielsa’s side will need to show some British grit and determination to hold out Barcelona and will no doubt look to Roberto Di Matteo and Chelsea’s recent Champions League heroics as a model for success. Indeed a dogged defensive display and counter attacking through the pacey Munian, Susaeta and midfield duo of Ander Hererra and Oscar de Marcos will possibly be the favoured approach from Bielsa. However for this to work will require a Didier Drogba like effort from star target man Llorente, who must hold up the ball and finish off the moves if his side are to hoist the trophy that Sergio Ramos dropped off a bus last year.
Barca on the other hand have regrouped following the double disappointment of the Champions League exit to Chelsea and relinquishing of their La Liga title to Real Madrid by grouping around outbound manager Pep Guardiola by beating rivals Espanyol 4-0. Barcelona’s recent run of three games could not contrast more with Bilbao’s, notching three wins with an aggregate score of 15-1 over Rayo, Malaga and Espanyol respectively.
The Catalan club will be keen to make amends after losing a fiery final to Madrid last season, where a heroic performance from Iker Casillas should act as inspiration for Bilbao’s Gorka Iraizoz, who was in magnificent form against Madrid despite conceding three goals.
Athletic play Barcelona at 2100 UK time on Friday May 25th
In his interview with The Sunday Times this morning Bilbao’s rising midfield enforcer Javi Martinez asserted: “People talk a lot about the Barcelona youth system; I’d say ours is just as good.”
Ah the exuberance of youth. Yes Martinez’s comments may be ever so wide of the mark but there is an element of truth in it. Bilbao’s extraordinary policy of recruiting and nurturing only players from the Basque region has seen the club constantly gracing La Liga as one of the three clubs (along with Real and Barca) to never be relegated from the top tier. Bilbao came into this tie with champions Barcelona on the back of a nine game La Liga unbeaten streak. Under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa and with an excellent crop of youth players Bilbao have a succesful recent history at the top level, they have finished in the top ten in their last two seasons.
In Martinez, Spain’s triumphant U21 captain and the tournaments stand out player this summer, and young winger Iker Muniain, Bilbao boast two of La Liga’s brightest talents. Add fellow U21 star Ander Herrera and burly Spain striker Fernando Llorente to the mix and an exciting side comes into sight.
Martinez is arguably the star of the show, equally adept in defence or midfield he is strong, defensively astute but also blessed with the passing ability of a true senior Spanish international midfielder. The 23 year old travelled to South Africa with the senior side alongside the likes of Xavi and Xabi Alonso. Martinez is certainly more akin to a Sergio Busquets than either of these giants of the game but he certainly has a big future ahead of him, as highlighted by the recent raft of rumours linking the youngster with Manchester United as they look to bolster arguably their weakest area. Martinez was selected at centre half for this game against Barcelona but, as with Busquets at Barca, one cant help but feel he is wasted in the role, looking solid but not entirely comfortable and unable to really put his stamp on proceedings with his range of passing.
Barcelona lined up with their own youth product’s in Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pique and Cesc Fabregas, a line up which somewhat undermines Martinez’s comments. On a night where Real Madrid had already blown away Osasuna 7-1 Barca were determined to embarrass the basque club on this Sunday evening. David Villa and Alexis Sanchez both missed out in favour of Adriano and Andres Iniesta, who was given a free role coming in from the right hand side and often exchanging position with Cesc.
Barca started well but Bilbao stayed strong and looked to launch forward when possible and it was one of their rising Spanish stars who showed bags of quality to grab the games opener. Ander Herrera collected the ball on the edge of the box before taking one touch and curling the ball home past a flailing Victor Valdes, maybe Martinez was on to something…
However it just had to be that child of Catalonia, Cesc Fabragas, to respond for the visitors, rising brilliantly to place an un-saveable header into Gorka Iraizoz’s net for an instant response and his fifth goal in a Barcelona shirt already.
Bilbao knew they had to work extremely hard and remain committed in the tackle if they were to get anything from the game and indeed you could often see the forward players tracking back to help their side deal with the passing and movement of Barca. The movement of Muniain and the physicality of Llorente posed the greatest threats to the Barca back line.
In the second half the lashing rain started to show on the surface of the pitch with puddles forming and making the slick passing of both sides far more difficult. With target man Fernando Llorente in the side Bilbao were able to turn to the longer ball, with the likes of Herrera and Muniain buzzing around the second ball and looking to latch on to balls over the top of the Barca back line.
Bilbao also looked to keep it narrow and compact at the back, closing the space and making it really difficult for Barca to find a route to goal with the ball not fizzing around as they would like it to do. This may have influenced the decision making of Pep Guardiola, taking off the pass master Xavi for the more direct approach of Alexis Sanchez with half an hour to play.
Bilbao’s own exciting winger Muniain was deployed on the right hand side where his skills were only seen in glimpses and in tight areas. A strange tactical decision as the diminutive winger could have been more of a goal threat playing in his usual role on the left or even playing off of Llorente further up the field.
However, it wasn’t sumptuous skill that got Bilbao their second goal but sheer work rate and a huge slice of luck. Following some tentative defending from Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal the two combined to see the ball ricochet into their own net off of the unwitting shin of Fernando Llorente.
Barca had to respond but Athletic remained determined and resolute at the back to hold firm during the inevitable final onslaught, with some vital saves from Iraizoz’a legs as he had done a few times throughout the 90 minutes.
But it was not to be for Bielsa’s side. Burly centre back Fernando Amorebieta was shown a second yellow for a fairly innocuous challenge on the half way line and soon after a defensive mix up allowed (who else?) Lionel Messi to arrive with typically exact timing and an unerring finish to take the edge off of Bilbao’s celebrations. An unfortunate way for the game to end but still a fantastic result and Bilbao will certainly maintain the bragging rights in the aftermath of what is so often a fantastic La Liga clash.
Report by Scott Carey