Barça have won the Copa del Rey more times than anybody with twenty-six victories since the tournament began in 1902 followed by Bilbao’s Athletic Club with 23 wins. Tomorrow night at Camp Nou (Saturday 9.30 pm) the two cup kings meet again in the 111th final of the competition with memories still clear of Barça’s triumps over Athletic in the 2009 (4-1) and 2012 (3-0) finals between the clubs.
As champions of La Liga Barça can complete a league and cup double tomorrow though for Culés a victory is more likely to be seen as part two in the quest to repeat the Liga, Copa and Champions triplete of 2009. The conditions all seem favourable with the game being played at Camp Nou where Athletic haven’t won since November 2001. However, with 50,000 Basques cheering them on this time Athletic will be looking to cause an upset.
I commented a few weeks ago that I saw this game as the biggest threat to our triplete dreams and there are plenty of examples that suggest that playing a final on your home pitch is not necessarily an advantage. First, there is not the usual advantage of having the crowd on your side. Both sides have the same number of tickets but you can be sure that for Athletic’s travelling fans there will be more of a party atmosphere and the Basques seem more likely to buy up any spare tickets from the touts. It’s almost guaranteed that Athletic’s fans will make more noise which can only inspire their team while for Barça’s players the scene will seem strange rather than familiar with the added novelty of having the visitors’ dressing room.
Added to this it may prove more difficult for Barça to focus fully on tomorrow’s game when there is the much bigger date seven days later against Juventus in Berlin. The Champions League is obviously the more important final and its shadow may prove to be just too distracting. Luis Enrique will undoubtedly attempt to keep the attention on Athletic but he himself will have Berlin in mind when he decides whether to risk Luis Suárez who is yet to receive medical clearance. The press seems confident the Uruguayan will play which means we could see the same XI of Ter Stegen, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Suárez and Neymar for both finals. Pedro is on standby to start if Suárez’s hamstring is not completely recovered.
Athletic finished seventh in La Liga, five points adrift of the final Europa League place, but they had a strong end to the campaign. They were unbeaten in their final seven games of the season and have lost just four of their last 20 matches in all competitions, including an impressive 4-0 win over Villarreal last Sunday. They have beaten Alcoyana, Celta Vigo, Malaga and Espanyol on aggregate on the way to the final and they remain unbeaten in the competition.
Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde will be missing Oscar de Marcos, Iker Muniain, Ander Iturraspe and Jonas Ramalho and could start with an 4-2-3-1 of Herrerin, Iraola, Etxeita, Laporte, Balenziaga, Benat, San Jose, Rico, Aketxe, Williams and Aduriz. The dangerman is undoubtedly Aritz Aduriz who has scored ten goals in his last eleven games and 26 this season.
Besides the actual football there has been the usual controversy in the build-up this week over the possible whistling of the Spanish national anthem. Just a few months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks had press and politicians in the western world falling over themselves to defend freedom of expression, the hypocrisy of the powers that be is exposed again when the possibility arises that people might wish to show their opposition to an outdated institution. Fines have been threatened to both clubs if the anthem is whistled and the Spanish government have even seen the issue as important enough to send a letter to Barça asking the club to “put all the necessary measures” to ensure there are “no altercations against the symbols of the state”. This is even more ridiculous if you consider that the organisation of the game is not in Barça’s control. Whether or not you agree with the monarchy, if you believe in freedom of expression it is easy to see the undemocratic attitude from the so-called democratic leaders.
Have a good whistle and enjoy the game!
Athletic: Herrerin; Iraola, Etxeita, Laporte, Balenziaga; Benat, San Jose; Rico, Aketxe, Williams; Aduriz.
Barça: Ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar.
Prediction: Athletic 2 Barça 3
Date: Saturday 30 May 2015. Kick-off 9.30 pm local time.