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Copa del Rey final promises epic end to Spanish football season

Barcelona go into Friday’s game against Athletic Bilbao as firm favourites. But Marcelo Bielsa’s team is one of the few in Europe that dare face the Catalans with an uncompromising approach.


Those of a poetic persuasion will find much to please them in the backstory to this year’s Copa del Rey final. Pep Guardiola’s visit to Marcelo Bielsa’s home in Argentina in 2006 and the ensuing 11-hour conversation prior to the former becoming a coach is now the stuff of legend. That Guardiola should end his glittering reign with a cup final against his mentor is most fitting. And though much of the focus prior to the game will be on the coaches, the monsters of their creation promise a truly outstanding spectacle at the Vicente Calderón on Friday.

Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao played each other in the same fixture three years ago, a game Barça won fairly comfortably 4-1 against the team then managed by Joaquín Caparrós. However, that result in itself carries little relevance now largely because of the change wrought by Bielsa at Athletic this season. Some of the personnel remain but the approach could not be more different.

Athletic’s high-energy style has won them much acclaim in the last few months, largely by virtue of their comprehensive dismantling of Manchester United in the Europa league, which catapulted them into the field of vision of the world’s English-language football press. Though they have undoubtedly been entertaining to watch for most of the season the results have not always followed, particularly in the league. A 10th-place finish is distinctly underwhelming considering the promise shown and the quality of the players. The Europa league final defeat to Atlético Madrid only served to exacerbate the desperation in Bilbao for an enjoyable season to become a successful one.

There is reason for bilbaínos to be optimistic about this game. The disappointing end to their season was widely attributed to fatigue, a byproduct of their style of play and a relatively small squad. The cup final comes 12 days after their last competitive game.  With no major injury concerns at the time of writing, and having had something of a rest they will come at the final with everything in their arsenal. In addition to the desperate desire for silverware at San Mamés, another potential motivator is the uncertain future of the current group of players, and indeed their manager. The likes of Fernando Llorente, Javi Martínez and Iker Muniaín are coveted by Europe’s biggest clubs and it remains to be seen if Athletic will be able to hold off the vultures for another summer.

Barcelona’s major concerns going into the final are in their defence. They will be without their captain Carles Puyol as well as Daniel Alves, whose absence also removes a major attacking threat. This would suggest a start for Gerard Piqué, who has had a mediocre season after falling from Guardiola’s good books with some of his purported lifestyle choices. José Manuel Pinto, Barcelona’s substitute goalkeeper will start, as he has in every previous cup game. He won’t be helped by any uncertainty from the makeshift backline in front of him. The likes of Llorente certainly have enough ability to give the Barcelona defenders a torrid time, if they are permitted time and space.

Farewell to Pep

But as ever with Barcelona, the quality of their defensive performance will be determined by how well their advanced players are able to impose themselves on the game. The desire to send Guardiola off with a trophy as well as ensuring they do not end a season without any major silverware (discounting the largely symbolic club world title) for the first time during his reign should ensure there is no lack of motivation. The Catalans will go into the game as firm favourites, but Athletic’s solid performances against them in the league (a 2-2 draw in Bilbao and a 2-0 loss at the Camp Nou), as well as Barça’s wobbles towards the end of the season, may plant the odd seed of doubt in their minds.

There are very few teams in Europe that refuse to modify their natural approach to the game when they come up against the genius of Barcelona. Athletic Bilbao are in that small group, quite possibly by themselves. Consequently, a wonderful feature of games between these two sides is that many of the factors that would be pivotal in determining the patterns of play in most games, such as the time and the scoreline, have little or no impact. Taking the lead for example will not cause either side to change their tactics in any fundamental way. Barcelona will continue to keep the ball, pass and move, whereas Athletic will pressure furiously all over the pitch and attack incisively. The result should be a tremendously entertaining football match and a wonderful end to another fine season of Spanish football.

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Published: May 24 2012
Category: Sports, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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