With the Primera Division title already secured, Barcelona will go in search of the second trophy in their treble quest when they take on Athletic Bilbao in Saturday’s final of the Copa del Rey. Barcelona wrapped up their La Liga season at the weekend, having claimed the championship with a game to spare. But before focus can turn to their attempts to win the club’s second ever treble when going up against Juventus in the Champions League final, the Catalans will have to to avoid any slip-ups against Athletic.
Barcelona go into the match as strong favorites and have the extra benefit of the match being played at their own Camp Nou stadium. Despite both clubs seemingly agreeing to play the final at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu, and the likes of Valencia’s Mestalla and Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon also being suggested as venues, the Spanish football federation opted for it to be staged in Barcelona’s backyard. That is, though, no guarantee of success, as Real Madrid found to their cost two years ago when Atletico Madrid triumphed at the Bernabeu.
But Barcelona, none the less, have much going in their favor. Indeed, this will be the third time in seven seasons that they have faced Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey, with Barcelona triumphing on the two previous occasions.
And they, of course, have huge motivation to add to their record 26 triumphs in the competition. After a rocky start to Luis Enrique’s first season in charge, the Barcelona coach is on the brink of matching the achievements of Pep Guardiola’s debut season in the dugout, when he guided his team to a glittering treble in 2009.
Since a 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad in the first match after the winter break, which was followed by reports of unrest involving Lionel Messi and the exit of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and his assistant Carles Puyol, Barcelona have been imperious. In fact, in the 33 matches since then Barcelona have failed to win just four times, and one of those was an irrelevant defeat to Bayern Munich in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.
In the match following that season-turning defeat to Sociedad, Barcelona beat Elche 5-0 in the first leg of their Copa del Rey last-16 tie. All three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar found the net in the victory and the trio has gone on to break scoring records aplenty, with 117 goals between them in all competitions. After breezing past Elche, the star South American forwards were pivotal in defeating Atletico Madrid before Villarreal were disposed 6-2 on aggregate in the semifinals.
It would have been an all-Barcelona final had Athletic not ended the hopes of Espanyol by winning 2-0 away from home after a goalless semifinal first leg in Bilbao. For Athletic, appearances in Copa del Rey finals have been impressively numerous through the club’s proud history. Only Barcelona have won the trophy more than Athletic’s 23 triumphs, however their last victory in the competition, and their last trophy of any kind, came in 1984, when they beat Barcelona in the final.
The club have remarkably maintained their tradition of selecting only Basque players and yet are joined with Barcelona and Real Madrid as the only clubs never to be relegated from Spain’s top division. But this season has seen a step back after last year’s fourth place finish that garnered a place in the Champions League. Their policy means that it is especially difficult to replace star departures, as they have found after losing Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich, Fernando Llorente to Juventus and Ander Herrera to Manchester United in the past three summers. Their task has been made further difficult by a cruciate knee ligament injury that ruled out star winger Iker Munian for at least six months in April.
Still, led by the 18 La Liga goals of Aritz Aduriz, Athletic went undefeated in their final seven matches to finish seventh and clinch the final Europa League berth. In Ernesto Valverde, Athletic also have a coach who played at the Camp Nou for two years and who in other circumstances might have been managing Barcelona on Saturday, having been approached to replace Tito Vilanova two years ago.