Tomorrow night FC Barcelona take to the field for the final time this season in the Copa del Rey final. The Blaugrana have reached the King’s Cup final on two other occasions under the reign of Pep Guardiola, and it is fitting that Guardiola’s last final as manager of the club is exactly the same as his first just three years ago. On that night Barcelona laid waste to a strong Athletic Bilbao side and despite falling behind to Gaizka Toquero’s early header, they recovered to win 4-1 thanks to goals from Yaya Toure, Lionel Messi, Bojan and Xavi Hernández.
Coincidentally, Barca went into that game with a makeshift defense, just like they will tomorrow, but other than that it’s all change for both clubs compared to 2009. On one hand you have Barcelona now preparing to say goodbye to Pep Guardiola rather than ushering in a new era, and a Barcelona squad that has changed dramatically since 2009. Just look at the names in the XVI named three years ago – Yaya Toure, Bojan, Samuel Eto’o, Sylvinho, Alexander Hleb and Eidur Gudjohnsen – that’s nearly half of the squad from that night who have gone on to move clubs at least once, or retire from the game altogether. Then, on the other hand you have Athletic Bilbao who used to be a physical, rough and tumble style team – perhaps the best way to describe them would be a Spanish Stoke of sorts – but now Bilbao are widely acknowledged as one of the most exciting football teams in the world. Under Marcelo Bielsa that physical style have not been curbed entirely, but given a tiki-taka twist if you will. No final against Athletic has ever been easy, but this final against Bielsa’s Bilbao will be amongst the toughest Guardiola has ever faced.
Whilst I do think this match will be incredibly close, the formbook suggests otherwise. Barcelona’s recent "troubles" have been well-documented, but they pale in comparison to the slump that Athletic are currently in. Bielsa’s men have gone without a win in five, and haven’t scored in those last five matches either. Three of those five games ended 3-0 to the opposition, with the Europa League final the most obvious example, and while you might argue that Bilbao played well in that match, or in the home defeat to Real Madrid, there can be no denying that their capitulation in the final league match of the season against Levante was just plain embarrassing.
To tell the truth, Bilbao look sterile at the moment, dominating possession and territory, but lacking that killer touch. I’m sure you could say the same of Barcelona, but tomorrow night Athletic won’t even have that possession to fall back on. It is widely accepted that to defeat the Blaugrana you need to be clinical with your chances, so what hope do Bilbao have aside from set pieces? Well, if we’ve learnt anything about the formbook and statistics over the years it’s that they can paint a very deceiving picture...
With that in mind, Barcelona cannot afford to rest on their laurels – they have to go for the jugular, even if it does mean kicking their opponent while they’re down (figuratively of course). If Athletic want to come out and press high up the field, Barca should respond by pressing at a higher intensity themselves. If the Bilbao midfield wants to push the tempo and move it around with two touch football, I want Barca to operate with one-touch football. Nothing can be left to chance – everyone has to go all out to give Pep the send off he deserves.
Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal in his third Copa del Rey final, and it goes without saying that the only other time Pinto has tasted CDR success with Barca is against Athletic Bilbao. He didn’t have an awful lot to do in the final three years ago, but Pinto must have been disappointed with the goal he conceded to Toquero. The corner was difficult to read, I will give him that, and the defense could have offered a little bit more protection, but in that scenario you look for your keeper to take control of the situation by either claiming the corner, or at least punching it clear. Instead Pinto was caught in no man’s land, and Toquero scored one of the easier headers in his career.
Defensively, Martin Montoya will start at right-back given Dani Alves’ collarbone injury, and I’m sure Bielsa will have pinpointed him as a potential weaklink. That’s not to say that Montoya is a poor defender, but compared to his colleagues he is the "worst" or at least the least experienced defender on our team. Whether that means a starting berth for Gaizka Toquero out wide, or merely Iker Muniain starting in his usual position, I cannot help but think that Bielsa has a plan to exploit Montoya. We can only trust that Martin is ready to rise to the occasion.
Montoya will be able to count upon the help of two world-class centre-backs in Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué, both of whom are the archetypal defenders to stop Bilbao. You have the elegant yet strong centre-back in Gerard Piqué whose height makes him a natural foil for Fernando Llorente, and you have the small, yet ferociously strong and intense pitbull-like figure of Javier Mascherano who can surprise Llorente as well as mopping up all other dangers. Carles Puyol’s absence will be sorely felt, but it’s great to have two such capable defenders to cushion the blow.
At left-back Adriano should start, and with a win tomorrow he would claim his third Copa del Rey winners medal having triumphed on two separate occasions with Sevilla. Adriano has come in for a bit of stick from the fanbase for his persistent injury problems, but a solid performance tomorrow could see him secure his place for next season, even if the club would still need a back-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will start in the holding role having arguably played his best season to date – which is no mean feat, and alongside him I would opt for Xavi and Thiago Alcântara. Thiago has been performing brilliantly in the past few weeks, including in that comfortable win over Bilbao’s second string around a month or so ago. His defensive work-rate would come in handy against the threat of Oscar de Marcos, Muniain and co, while his strength and composure in possession sets him apart from Cesc Fàbregas, or at least Cesc in his current form. Not only that, but Thiago possesses greater speed and better agility, both of which this Bilbao team have struggled to defend in recent weeks.
At this stage, I’m sure you are wondering why I haven’t chosen Andrés Iniesta for his usual midfield berth, but there are two reasons. Firstly, matches against Bilbao always turn into a physical battle in the middle of the park, and I worry that Iniesta would lose out given Xavi’s recent injury woes. Secondly, I don’t think Alexis Sanchez will be entirely match-fit after his injury and in a game like this; we cannot afford to have any passengers. His pace and strength would have been perfect for this game, but having an impact player like Sanchez on the bench is also positive if things don’t go according to plan. On the left-wing Iniesta can drift into central positions to allow Adriano to overlap and exploit the space as well as offer vital protection against Andoni Iraola’s attacking instincts.
Lionel Messi will start at centre-forward having broken nearly every record in existence and will be licking his lips at the prospect of running directly at the Bilbao defense. Falcao’s relative agility and speed caused all sorts of problems in the Europa League final; imagine what Messi could do in full flight? It’s a worrying thought for Bielsa, but one that I’m sure he will have given plenty of thought to stopping. Pedro should start on the right-wing and he is looking to make one last impression on Vicente Del Bosque in a bid to force his way into the Spanish squad for the European Championships. I’m sure a hat-trick wouldn’t go amiss ;)
This has hardly been the best season in memory for the Catalans, but I’m sure you’ve heard the saying "he who laughs last, laughs best" and it applies for the match tomorrow. Real Madrid may have won the league title, but Barcelona have the opportunity to win the final trophy of the season; to have the final say in this rollercoaster season. More importantly, they have the chance to book their place in the Supercopa, which could give a huge psychological boost ahead of next season.
Predicted Line-Up: Pinto; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busi, Xavi, Cesc; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Match Prediction: I’m plumping for a 3-1 Barcelona win, with the third coming in the final 10-15 minutes as Athletic search for an equaliser.