Recovery and redemption at stake for Barca and Bilbao in Copa del Rey final
Madrid (AFP) –
Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao face off in the second Copa del Rey final in two weeks on Saturday when the impact of defeat for either could be more dramatic than the joy of victory.
For Barca, losing to Athletic would be the kind of upset that could derail their La Liga title challenge and undermine the progress made this season by Ronald Koeman, whose future remains uncertain.
For Athletic, defeat would mean making unwanted history as the team that lost in the final of the same cup twice in a fortnight, the first all the more devastating for the fact it came against Basque rivals Real Sociedad.
It will be a contest between the Copa del Rey's two most successful clubs in the empty Estadio La Cartuja in Seville, Barcelona having won the competition 30 times and Athletic 23, with 81 final appearances between them.
When Barca were beaten by Valencia in 2019, it was the first time in five years they missed out on the cup, their dominance creating a sense of ambivalence about the tournament, particularly when held up against more dramatic failures in Europe.
Ernesto Valverde's domestic double as coach in 2018 was all-but forgotten in the swirl of anger around the Champions League collapse against Roma, while a year later the implosion against Liverpool meant Barca were already devastated before Valencia landed a knock-out blow.
But Barcelona are not the team they were and the Copa assumes far greater importance in a season of recovery under Koeman.
The Dutch coach said in January that "Barcelona are not ready to win a lot of things right now" but he will be a victim of his own progress if the team gets close in both the league and cup and comes away with neither.
- Bilbao to bounce back? -
There is also a growing concern about Barca's inability to deliver on the big occasion this season, with encouraging performances against Spain's lesser lights coming in stark contrast to games against tougher opponents, when Koeman's youngsters have looked exposed.
They have lost all three games played against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, were overwhelmed by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 and overrun by Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Spanish Super Cup.
Failure in the biggest matches is likely to count against Koeman when the club's new president Joan Laporta weighs up whether to continue with him this summer, when Lionel Messi will also decide on his future.
It seems unlikely that winning a seventh Copa del Rey would be decisive for Messi but a trophy could enhance the sense that he is happy again and that the club is on the right track. Defeat would serve as a reminder of recent disappointments.
Messi was sent off when Athletic won the Spanish Super Cup in January, an exhilarating contest that saw Inaki Williams' thunderbolt snatch a 3-2 victory after extra-time.
Williams said it was "the best goal of my career" and his team will draw hope from that game, when they deserved to beat Barcelona three days after having beaten Real Madrid.
Athletic's Asier Villalibre celebrated by playing the trumpet with his teammates dancing around him in the middle of the pitch, while Marcelino Garcia Toral hoisted a trophy in just his third game since being appointed coach.
Their momentum has slowed since then thanks to four consecutive draws in La Liga which have made a late push for Europe unlikely, perhaps in part due to their concentration wavering as the two cup finals came into view.
The first against Real Sociedad was always going to be their best hope of winning the Copa del Rey for the first time since 1984.
On Saturday, in the same city and the same stadium where they lost a fortnight ago, they will have a second chance.
© 2021 AFP