The two most successful clubs in Copa del Rey history, FC Barcelona (26 titles) and Athletic Biblao (23 titles) will once again battle it out for the Spanish Cup. The two sides last met in the Copa del Rey on May 25 2012, when they also faced off in the Final, with Barcelona coming out victorious by a score of 3-0. Coincidentally, that was the last Copa trophy Barcelona won. Athletic's last Cup win came in 1984 when in a close 1-0 final they edged out, wouldn't you know it, Barcelona. Since then the Basques reached the final three times, twice losing to Barcelona and once to Atletico Madrid.
According to experts (and non-experts) the favorite to win the trophy, and complete the domestic double, is clear - Barcelona. As they shouldn't, Barcelona aren't taken the game lightly and preparations were in full swing the entire week so the team should be ready and motivated to secure the second title in the quest for an unprecedented second club treble.
Athletic didn't take a page out of Bayern Munich's book of pregame smack talk and decided to embrace the role of the underdog. Striker Aritz Aduriz even went on to say that this Barcelona is one of the best teams in history. He continued that Athletic's biggest strength is team spirit. Athletic are a team that can't really look back at the 2014-15 season with a whole lot of pride. They finished the season a full 15 points less than in the last campaign, in which they took part in the UEFA Champions League, but stumbled to seventh in the standings this season, and the Copa del Rey title would take some of the sting out of a disappointing campaign.
The game will be played at the Camp Nou, with Barcelona being the away team. The decision to play the Final in Barcelona's home stadium surprised many, but because the Santiago Bernabeu was made unavailable and the remaining big stadiums in Spain already had events already planed on May 30 or were deemed unfeasible by the federation only two options remained: the gorgeous (Nuevo) San Mamés or the enormous Camp Nou. Because of its size the two clubs agreed that the venue should be Camp Nou. Because Athletic are the older team they were named the home team.
With only two games left in the season, both Finals, it is widely expected that Luis Enrique will field the same eleven in both cup-deciders, especially now that Luis Suarez has three full training sessions behind him, after a nagging hamstring injury forced him out of the last two La Liga games of the season.
In goal Barcelona will turn to their Copa del Rey goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who has been beaten four times in the seven games he featured in in the Copa. In two games he had given up one goal and two goals in one. Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba, a foursome that has established itself as Lucho's "big game" back-line, should play in front of ter Stegen, though Jeremy Mathieu could also be used from the first minute though a cameo later in the game, if Enrique decides to close down space and bring in some extra height, is more likely.
The midfield trio should consist of Sergio Busquets in defensive midfield, with Ivan Rakitić and Andres Iniesta playing in front of him. It would be a big surprise if Xavi or Rafinha would challenge Rakitić or Iniesta for a start, but both have value from the bench and could be used in various situations depending on how the game goes. Xavi should come on in the second half for one last hurrah at the Camp Nou. Sergi Roberto will struggle to make the match-squad.
Just about the only question leading up to the Final was whether Suarez will be fit enough to start. Signs were ominous as Saurez practiced separately from the team on Monday and reports surfaced that he was considered doubtful for the Final. But after a day off on Tuesday Suarez trained with his teammates and has done so in all sessions the team held since then.Today Lucho confirmed that Suarez will be available to play tomorrow. As expected, he remained tight-lipped over if the Uruguayan will start or stay on the bench, but my money is on that he'll play from the first minute. Joining him in the starting eleven will be the "other two" of the deadly trio, Lionel Messi and Neymar. Pedro will be ready to come off the bench in what could also be his last game at the Camp Nou.
While Barcelona didn't have many injury worries in the days leading up to the Final, Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde didn't have such luck, but he too had nearly all of his players available. Winger Iker Minuain has been long absent with a torn ACL and will not return for Athletic's last game of the season. Though the biggest loss for Valverde will come due to a suspension as the extremely useful and versatile Oscar De Marcos will be forced to watch the game from the stands due to the accumulation of yellow cards.
Iago Herrerin, Athletic's cup goalkeeper is expected to start in goal but apart from Aritz Aduriz starting in attack nothing is really set in stone. The reliable Aymeric Laporte will form one half of their center-back pairing, but if his partner will be Xabi Etxeita or Mikel San Jose remains to be seen. Both of them could feature at the same time actually, but in this case San Jose will play in midfield. Mikel Balenziaga and Andoni Iraola are expected to start at full back, but Valverde could surprise and start Jon Aurtenetxe.
Things get even more chaotic in midfield where Ander Iturraspe, Beñat Etxebarria, Mikel Rico, Markel Susaeta, Unai Lopez, Iñaki Williams, Ibai Gomez and Ager Agetxe could all start. Williams is a good bet to play on the left wing especially because of the speed he brings to the table and he could be, next to Aduriz, the biggest threat to Barcelona's goal from open play. If Valverde decides to go after Barcelona Susaeta will start on the right wing, but if takes the conservative approach we could see all of Beñat, Iturraspe, Rico and San Jose in some form in defensive and attacking midfield. Late in the season Agetxe has emerged for the Basque side, but it would be a surprise to see him from the opening whistle. Gomez will also probably used as a impact substitution.
Athletic Bilbao 2-5 FC Barcelona - 8th February 2015 - La Liga
Led by the attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, Barcelona for the first time won at the New San Mamés - in empathic fashion. Each member of the record breaking attacking trio scored a goal, with Messi assiting on goals scored by his line-mates. Pedro added a late goal to complete the five goal night. Athletic had three goalscorers, however, Oscar De Marcos scored into his own net. Mikel Rico and Aritz Aduriz found the back of the net for the home side to keep the score respectable.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitić; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Herrerin; Iraola, Laporte, Etxeita, Balenziaga; San Jose, Iturraspe; Susaeta, Rico, Williams; Aduriz
Athletic still have a lot to prove this season, both to themselves and to Barcelona (considering they lost both La Liga games), but a scenario in which they will be able to contain the firepower Barcelona bring to the table is difficult to imagine. My prediction is therefore that Barcelona will complete the domestic double with a 1-3 "away" win at the Camp Nou.