April 19. Stick it in your diary. The 111th Copa del Rey Final will see Barça take on arch-rival Real Madrid after Tata Martino’s men completed a 3-1 aggregate win over Real Sociedad at Anoeta tonight. The Basques’ hopes of overturning the 2-0 scoreline from last week’s first leg stayed alive until Leo Messi scored a splendid solo effort after 27 minutes which left the home team needing four goals. With Barça playing a high-quality possession game the tie never looked in danger though Antoine Griezmann scored a late consolation which earned Real a draw on the night and denied the visitors a first victory in San Sebastian since 2007.
Martino made an important change to his usual formation, sacrificing a forward (Alexis) in order to bring in another ball-player, and for the first time in nearly a year Andrés Iniesta was asked to play on the left wing in order to accommodate both Fabregas and Xavi in midfield. It was the 2-0 defeat at AC Milan in the Champions League last 16 twelve months ago that saw an end to Iniesta playing in this position despite the success often seen with this option. Less than a week from a new Champions League challenge at Manchester City, tonight’s game could be seen as a dress rehearsal of how to tame a beast in a hostile atmosphere, and it will be interesting to see if Martino is considering a similar formation for the Etihad.
Tonight it worked like a treat. There was an immediate connection with Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas finding each other easily and with Messi also dropping off to mix with the midfielders a serious Barça took control from the start. The main threat to José Manuel Pinto’s goal came from back passes as the Real forwards tried to close him down but the veteran keeper kept his cool and showed good footwork under pressure as Barça maintained possession skilfully.
The game was intense as Barça moved the ball quickly and the home side showed a desire to reach their first final in 30 years. There were few early chances with just one dangerous cross from Iniesta which Mikel Gonzalez cleared in front of Pedro while at the other end Zurutuza fired wide after Busquets only cleared Real’s first corner to the edge of the box.
Both teams were looking tuned in but the intensity and speed of the game inevitably led to the occasional mistake. There was a poor ball from Mascherano straight into touch, then a minute later a mistake from the Real defence gifted the ball to Iniesta who found Xavi who squared again for Alves who hammered a drive which took a slight deflection before bouncing in front of Zubikarai but the keeper was alert to make a good stop.
Busquets was booked in the 26th minute for a foul on Griezmann on the halfway line. Real players pushed up but Barça cleared the free-kick with a high ball out of defence, Real’s left-back José Angel misjudged his control and volleyed the ball to Messi who was about 50 yards from goal, the Argentinian still had to dribble past Mikel Gonzalez but he did it so quickly that neither Ansotegi nor Gaztañaga could get close enough to make a challenge, Messi’s bullet shot came from the edge of the area and despite getting a touch on the ball Zubikarai couldn’t prevent the ball rolling in.
With the goal lead Barça continued to look to control possession though there might have been a quick second after Fabregas’s splendid chip which Pedro couldn’t quite control. Real kept working hard and their efforts were nearly rewarded in the 35th minute when Zaldua’s cross found Vela at the far post but Pinto did enough to put the Mexican striker off and Alves cleared up off the line.
It was a brief scare and it wasn’t until ten minutes into the second half that Real threatened again. Xabi Prieto’s back-heel near the corner flag came back to Vela who hit a tremendous shot that flew across Pinto and bounced out off the crossbar. Barça responded with Fabregas playing another fine pass into the area for Messi who struck a low shot that Zubikarai dived left to stop, the rebound fell to Fabregas who shot first time but the goalkeeper managed to stretch again from the floor to complete a splendid double-save.
For a while it was end to end stuff as Busquets sent a wayward header to Vela who chipped a pass over Mascherano for Griezmann to chase but as Pinto came out to close the angle Mascherano got back well to block. However, as Real tired Barça once more slowed the game with some first class possession football. Song replaced Xavi to bolster the midfield but perhaps it might have been safer to take off Busquets who would have missed the final with another card.
Barça would have been happy to play out time though the players continued working hard to keep the ball with the occasional penetration into Real’s area such as the excellent 1-2 between Alves and Messi though Zubikarai made another decent save. The home team, however, was not beat yet and Real’s players showed pride to make a final push which was rewarded three minutes from the end when Canales found Chori Castro on the left and he crossed for Griezmann to crack the ball past Pinto.
It was a shame not to get the victory on the night though Real deserved something for their effort. It may seem strange but tonight’s 1-1 draw was a much better performance from Barça than the 1-4 win at Sevilla on Sunday. Of course the pitch had something to do with the performance in Seville but tonight there seemed a much better attitude. Players whose form has been worrying such as Alves, Piqué, Mascherano and Xavi all had decent games which is a good sign with the battles ahead, though the stars were again Iniesta and Messi with some fine passes from Fabregas. We now face Rayo Vallecano in La Liga on Saturday before the trip to Manchester. Neymar will almost certainly be fit to return next week but Martino could well opt for Iniesta on the left again after tonight’s game. What would you guys do?
Real Sociedad: Zubikarai; Zaldua, Ansotegi, Mikel González Jose Ángel; Zurutuza, Gaztañaga (Elustondo m67); C.Vela, X.Prieto (Canales m81), Griezmann; Seferovic (Chory Castro m60).
Barça: Pinto 7; Alves 7.5, Piqué 7.5, Mascherano 6.5, Alba 6.5; Xavi 7.5 (Song m66, 7), Busquets 7 (Bartra m89, –), Fabregas 7.5, Pedro 7.5 (Alexis m77, 6.5), Messi 8, Iniesta 8.5.
Goals: m27 Messi 0-1, m87 Griezmann 1-1.
Yellow cards: m26 Busquets, m31 Vela, m52 Gaztañaga, m56 Zurutuza, m89 Fabregas.