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