Long after the league season ended, long after the Europeans season ended, the Copa del Rey will finally come to a close.
In a way, the two teams enter the final match of their 2011-12 season on equal footing. Both suffered fairly devastating losses in their other two competitions. Eventual winners Chelsea knocked FC Barcelona out of the Champions League in the semifinals and archrivals Real Madrid CF captured the La Liga title.
Athletic Bilbao finished the league in a respectable position, but the Basques felt real heartache in the final of the Europa League, where Athletico Madrid stole the trophy.
While the Copa del Rey is probably the least important or coveted award a team could win in a season, this one takes on a new meaning. It may feel like an afterthought – since it is contested weeks after the bigger trophies were lifted – but for these two teams, the Spanish cup symbolizes redemption. With at least one trophy in their cabinet for this year, both the Catalans and the Basques would feel as if this season was not a total wash.
Previous encounters in the league will have little effect on what occurs in this match. The away draw and two-goal home win favor Barcelona slightly, but Bilbao has proved time and again this season that it should never be underestimated.
Unfortunately for head coach Pep Guardiola, his last game at the helm is once again marked by injuries. Captain Carles Puyol was the latest victim after injuring his knee and undergoing surgery. Dani Alves is another recent casualty. His broken collarbone will keep him out of the final. Tack those two newcomers onto the list of already injured defenders like Andreu Fontàs and Éric Abidal, and Barcelona’s back line is looking very permeable.
Striker David Villa just made the announcement that his recovery from a broken shinbone suffered in December has not progressed enough for him to play. Not only will he miss the Copa del Rey final, but also the European Championships this summer.
Even with the injuries, the Barcelona players will have added intensity to win the game and send Guardiola off with one last title. Lionel Messi will see to that, for while the team’s season may have been lackluster, his performance was once again a standout.
FC Barcelona Predicted Starting XI: Pinto, Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Afellay, Messi and Alexis.
Unlike their Catalan counterparts, Bilbao has no major injury woes heading into the final. Ander Iturraspe battled a virus early in the week but has been given the medical green light to play.
Head coach Marcelo Bielsa will relish his opportunity to be the final coach Guardiola faces with Barcelona and will do all he can to make the experience worthwhile.
Fernando Llorente will be the player to watch for the Basques. He has been a leader for the team all season and one of the main goal scorers. His ferocious headers and several inches of height on the majority of Barcelona’s players will make him a real threat.
Athletic Bilbao Predicted Starting XI: Irazoz, Aurtenetxe, Amorebieta, Iraola, Iturraspe, Susaeta, Ander, Javi Martínez, Llorente, De Marcos and Muniain.
This will be a close match. A blowout by either team is highly unlikely. Even though Bilbao is on a losing streak and Barcelona is on a winning streak, the slate will be wiped clean once both teams step onto the Estadio Vicente Calderón pitch. Each team has a chip on its shoulder and fuel to win. Playing in Madrid, albeit not at the ideal capital stadium, will just add to the fire. Most importantly for the fans, though, this will not be a repeat of the Champions League final. Both teams will go for it and play beautiful football – the coaches will see to that. There will be plenty of goals and tantalizing technique. In the end, though, Barcelona should come out on top without extra time or penalties needed.
FC Barcelona 3–2 Athletic Bilbao