Pep Bows Out in Style
Some of the most loyal and fanatical fans in Spain crammed into the Vicente Calderon tonight to witness a repeat of the 2009 Copa del Rey final, a game which started Guardiola’s epic, historic and unrivaled trophy haul. The Basques and Catalans weren’t overly keen on hearing the Spanish national anthem and made their feelings felt. Bilbao had spent the last two weeks being trained and drilled within an inch of their lives by Bielsa to avoid another loss in an important final following humiliation at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the UEFA cup final a few weeks ago. Pep was eager for his own charges to receive rest and recuperation after a long, arduous, and ultimately disappointing season.
Barça’s back line has been ravaged this year. Eric Abidal is currently recuperating after a liver transplant, Puyol is recovering from knee surgery, and Dani Alves suffered a broken collar bone last week. In their absence, Pique and Mascherano partnered in the centre of defence, Adriano marshalled the left side, while youngster Montoya was thrown into the deep end and was charged with filling the giant shoes of Dani Alves on the right flank.
One could have been excused for doubting that the young Masia graduate and B team player could cope with such a huge task and occasion. Thankfully any such concerns proved to be completely unfounded. Busquets, Iniesta, and Xavi, Pep’s favourite midfield trio, lined out one last time for their coach while Pedro, Messi, and Alexis formed the attack.
The game began at break neck speed and Barcelona attacked Bilbao with merciless fervour. Messi ran at the Athletic defence and twisted and turned past a series of tackles before unleashing an inswinging strike that curled narrowly wide. A minute later a good Pedro effort was deflected for a corner. With the defence at sixes and sevens, the resulting corner fell to Pedro again and he blasted a left foot half volley home from close range. Pep’s delight from the bench was clearly apparent and we will all miss his goal celebrations next season.
Messi was rampant and clearly sharper after two weeks rest. He cut inside from the right before rocketing a shot destined for the top corner only to be denied by an acrobatic save from Gorka Iraizoz. The Ballon d’Or winner however was not to be denied a second time as a defence splitting pass by Andres Iniesta found the gallop of the Argentine, who rocketed the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle for a two goal cushion. And five minutes later Pedro was on hand again to latch onto a Xavi pass at the edge of the box to curl a slick finish into the bottom corner. The little Canarian was finally finding the form that has eluded him for most of the season.
Llorente, who had been expertly marshalled by Mascherano all night, had a decent penalty shout overlooked as a slick Muniain pass saw the Basque Giant turn past Pique before falling in the square. Replays showed Pique grab a handful of his jersey, however, the referee waved play on.
Inigo Perez and Ander Herrera were introduced by Bielsa after the break and they prevented Barcelona from dominating with such ease and swagger. However, Bilbao were incapable of registering any clear cut chances as the makeshift defence were putting in a stellar performance. Pique and Mascherano were solid as a rock at the back and must have left Tito wondering if a new centre back was a priority for next season. In fact this may have been the best defensive performance of the season, typified by the calling ashore of Llorente as the darling of Bilbao couldnt register a single shot on goal.
In the final twenty minutes Pep gave Kieta, Fabregas, and Thiago some playing time in the place of Xavi, Alexis and Pedro, however the blaugrana seemed content with a three nil victory. The Basques must be commended for their positive playing style on the night, and for being much too proud to park the bus. Their fans never gave up and remained vocal in their support to the final whistle, in spite of the heart break of another lost final.
Pep seemed emotional as pitch side embraces and last goodbyes ensued on the pitch before the Cup presentation. Xavi invited Puyol to lift the Cup together but the injured captain allowed Xavi the glory, his own arms perhaps a little weary from hoisting aloft too much silverware during the Guardiola era.
Goodbye Pep. Thanks for the memories.
Image Credit: JOSEP LAGO/AFP/GettyImages