FC Barcelona turned in a majestic performance in Pep Guardiola’s final match in charge to deliver a 14th trophy in the Guardiola era with a 3-0 win over a tough Athletic Bilbao side. The talk before the game was about how difficult the final would be, and how Bilbao were worthy opponents for this legendary Blaugrana side. However, an intense first half-hour from the Catalans left the Basques in their wake, with Pedro netting within the first five minutes. From there on in, the game was all but over and Lionel Messi doubled the advantage within a quarter of an hour, before Pedro got his second and the final goal of the game just after the half-hour. You can’t help but feel sorry for Athletic, but Guardiola deserved this send off. From the bottom of all of our hearts: Gracies Pep!
So then, after four glorious years it had come to this: Pep Guardiola’s final match in charge of FC Barcelona, and what better way to put a finishing touch on such a successful era than with a cup final? All in all it was a strong Barcelona line-up, arguably the strongest available for the Catalans, while Bielsa had made a couple of tactical changes from his normal approach in an attempt to stifle the Blaugrana. It only took half a minute for the action to start as Bilbao surged forward but Barcelona countered and Lionel Messi fired just wide from outside the area.
Pedro then had a shot blocked for a corner, one which Bilbao failed to clear properly and it would cost them dear. Barcelona had started at a ferocious tempo, and Pedro was at the forefront, fighting for the ball, winning the ball and firing past Gorka Iraizoz to put the Catalans ahead. Pedro’s rise under Guardiola has been well-documented, and this goal meant that the young winger had now scored in the final of the UEFA Champions League, Supercopa, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Yet we doubted him?
Marcelo Bielsa clearly had a tactical plan to counteract Barcelona, but it wasn’t really working. Fernando Amorebieta was doing an adequate job in man-marking Lionel Messi, but the Argentine’s superior agility was startlingly obvious. Furthermore, Javi Martinez was not dropping deep when Messi pulled Amorebieta out of position, leaving Bilbao short at the back with Pedro and Alexis causing havoc in the space the Venezuelan left behind.
On the other hand, when Messi got on the ball without Amorebieta there to pressure him he would nearly score like in the 14th minute as he curled a left-footed shot towards the top corner only for Iraizoz to claw the ball out for a corner kick. It was déjà vu for Marcelo Bielsa’s side – just like the Europa League final they couldn’t get going. But it would get worse.
Barcelona’s asphyxiating high-line of pressure was forcing the Bilbao defense into error after error and in an attempt to find their attack, Athletic gave it away to the Catalans. The ball was given to Messi, who fed Andrés Iniesta with a delightful raking pass, and Iniesta returned the favour with a sublime slide-rule pass and even though the angle was tight, even though he was on his weaker foot, Messi found the roof of the net. 2-0 Barcelona, thanks to Messi’s 73rd goal of the season. Staggering statistics to match a staggering performance.
Then it got even worse. One of the best characteristics of Guardiola’s Barcelona has been their ruthlessness; their lack of mercy and in his final game in charge it was all flooding back. A free-kick was quickly taken from the half-way line to Xavi who turned and fed Pedro. From his position just outside the box, Pedro just picked his spot in the far corner and dispatched it for his second of the game. 25 minutes in, surely game over?
Well, Bilbao weren’t going to go down without a fight, forcing a fine save from Jose Manuel Pinto immediately after the restart, but then Barcelona countered and Messi nearly added a fourth, but his lobbed attempt was gathered comfortably by Iraizoz. Fernando Llorente had a legitimate claim for a penalty turned down minutes later after being felled by Gerard Piqué in the area; everything that could go did go wrong for Athletic. They were sinking without trace. Even Javier Mascherano tried to get in on the act, attempting an audacious lob from the half-way line with a free-kick. The best part was that Iraizoz had to make a great save. Not since Sergio Busquets’ similar attempt in the Manita had I seen Barcelona playing with such confidence.
At half-time, Barcelona had all but won their 14th trophy under Pep Guardiola.
Marcelo Bielsa used the half-time break to make two changes with Ander Herrera and Inigo Perez replacing Markel Susaeta and Oscar De Marcos. It was surprising that Ander hadn’t started the game despite having the flu for the past week, and at 3-0 down it was probably a case of too little too late for Athletic Bilbao. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t give it a go as Ibai Gomez attempted to reduce the deficit with a cheeky lob over Pinto, but he couldn’t direct it goal-wards. Athletic though were a much improved side compared to the first half.
Barcelona’s tempo had fell dramatically which played as much of a part in Athletic’s change of fortunes as Bilbao themselves, but still they couldn’t create anything of note. In fact, the first real chance of the second half came in the 70th minute after Messi dribbled half the pitch to test Iraizoz with a low shot from a tight angle. Seydou Keita was brought on for Alexis Sanchez, while Bielsa made their last change, replacing Llorente with Gaizka Toquero for some bizarre reason.
Jon Aurtenetxe went close with a header at the back-post as Athletic went in search of their consolation before Xavi was taken off for Cesc Fabregas after being on the receiving end of a heavy tackle from Inigo Perez. As it stood, Xavi’s contribution had helped to all but seal his 20th career title. There was also a late cameo for Thiago Alcântara who replaced Pedro with a few minutes left to play.
And just like that, it was the end of an era. An emotional goodbye to Pep Guardiola and now the attention turns to Tito Vilanova. I have a feeling, this might just be the beginning.