“We are going to surprise Barcelona and we are going to win this final.” This confident statement wasn’t from the mouth of a drunk Basque fisherman in a Bilbao bar. Or one of the 20,000 fans who watched their teams final training session at San Mames. It was spouted by in form Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente. And you know what? I agree with him.
Barcelona may be the second best team in Europe right now (yes, Manchester United are better), but they’ve had a huge couple of weeks. Two massive matches with Chelsea in the Champions League, an El Classico and a 3-3 draw at the Camp Nou on Sunday with Villarreal have drained the Blaugrana of physical strength, mental toughness and some crucial players.
This will be music to the ears of Athletic Bilbao coach Joaquin Caparros, who will have the luxury of a full strength squad in which to choose his starting eleven from. He gave all of his stars a rest on the weekend for the match against Real Betis. They’re professional 1-0 win means they’ve now gone four games unbeaten in the league. The Basque side are full of confidence at the minute.
There will be no Iniesta, Henry, Marquez or Abidal on the Barca team sheet at the Mestalla on Wednesday. There may be no Valdes or Puyol either if Guardiola decides to give backup keeper Jose Pinto and forgotten defender Martin Caceres a run. Not exactly great news going into a cup final.
However, despite these noticeable absentees, Barca still contain more quality in their ranks than Bilbao. A lot more. They’re not bulletproof though. Set pieces have been a problem for them all season–Juninho’s free kick in the Champions League round of 16 and Sergio Ramos’ free header for Real’s second at the Bernabeu when the game was still there to be won, immediately come to mind–and Bilbao have a major weapon to exploit this–Fernando Llorente.
The beanpole striker has 13 league and 4 Copa goals to his name and has been crucial to Athletic’s success this season. He’s quick, strong, intelligent, effective with both feet and dynamic on the ground and in the air. He’s Bilbao’s match winner and the Barca defence will not want to let him out of their sight for even a moment on Wednesday night.
Los Leones are by no means a one man band, though. Llorente will no doubt be ably backed up by the underrated Andoni Iraola, Javier Martinez, Fernando Amorebita and the guy who is playing purely for his love of the Athletic shirt, Joseba Etxeberria. Crucially, Athletic Bilbao are a proud lot. They will not give an inch on Wednesday and they won’t stop fighting for the entire ninety minutes. They will make life extremely uncomfortable for Barcelona.
Barcelona may still be on track for a treble this season, but they still haven’t actually won anything. They should have wrapped up the league on the weekend, but couldn’t hold off a spirited Villarreal outfit. There will no doubt be extra pressure on the players in this match as they seek to get trophy number one out of the way against a team they should account for quite easily.
Bilbao, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. Caparros phrased it perfectly, “At the end of the day there are two teams, one is the best in the world, the other has a lot of passion and pride”. It’s as simple as that. For all their confident rhetoric and bold statements about beating the Catalan club to cup number 25, surely no one around San Mames is actually expecting them to win this match. A victory would be a monumental upset, one for the ages, whilst a loss would be put down to them being beaten by one of the best teams going around. Plus, they will be in Europe next season, regardless of the outcome. They can just go for it.
This years final of the Copa Del Rey will be special, with the two clubs with more cup wins than anyone else facing off against each other to see who will stand alone at the top. I, for one, can’t wait for kick off.
For the record, I think Athletic will pinch it 3-2, courtesy of a late header from Llorente.