Led by Lionel Messi, Barcelona stormed their way to the domestic double, adding their 27th Copa del Rey trophy to the La Liga. Messi opened the scoring, carving up Athletic's defense midway through the first half before Neymar doubled Barcelona's lead later in the half. Messi would add to Barça's lead with a close range finish before Iñaki Williams added a consolidation goal for Athletic.
|Shots on Target||3
As in most big games since the first game of the New Year, Luis Enrique turned to his so called "Gala XI". In La Liga those lineups included Claudio Bravo, but because this is a cup competition, Marc-Andre ter Stegen took his place in between the uprights. In front of him were the goofy-looking Dani Alves (take a look at his haircut, you'll see what I'm talking about), Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba. In midfield Sergio Busquets played behind Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić, and in attack Barcelona's deadly trio of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar was reunited after a two game absence.
Ernesto Valverde included a surprise in his starting eleven, at right-back, where Unai Bustinza, a 23-year old youngster who only appeared in three games this season, replaced the suspended Oscar De Marcos. The rest of the back four was formed by Aymeric Laporte, Xabier Etxeita and Mikel Balenziaga, who played front of Athletic's Copa goalkeeper, Iago Herrerín. Mikel San José, Beñat Etxebarria, Andoni Iraola and Mikel Rico took their place in the middle of the pitch, while Williams joined Aritz Aduriz in attack, but Aduriz played closest to ter Stegen's goal.
As expected, the teams were greeted by an exceptionally loud Camp Nou that got even louder when the anthem was being played. One couldn't actually even hear the anthem through all the whistling. The Spanish football federation surely will not be happy and fines could be handed out, but only one outcome is expected when playing the Spanish anthem to Catalan and Basque fans.
The hosts, Athletic, started the match from the midfield circle and immediately started to push high up the pitch, whether they had the ball or not. This too was expected as the Basque-side is known to play very attacking football, and when in defense they press the opposing ball carrier deep in the opponent's half. Athletic had some success early in the game with that tactic as Barcelona struggled to carry the ball across that halfway line. Athletic came very close to scoring the opener in the 10th minute when ter Stegen tried to dribble past Williams after not the best of first touches, but very nearly turned the ball over.
Barely the young German escaped punishment, but as soon as he managed to get past the Athletic forward Barcelona were on the attack. With the added directness in Barcelona's play this season, Barcelona were quick to Herrerin's goal when an Athletic player or two were left trailing the play. And after just a couple of passes, including a stunning cross from Messi, Neymar found the back of the net with a great finish, but the whistle blew and the goal was ruled out for offside. Replay showed that Neymar and Laporte appeared to be in line.
Barcelona might not have gotten a goal from that play, but it signaled a change in play on the pitch. Barcelona couldn't quite get their game going early, but from the 10th minute on Athletic could do little to stop Barcelona from doing whatever they wanted. In the 12th minute Rakitić nicely found Suarez, who wasted no time to take the shot, but Harrerin made a strong right leg save to deny the Uruguayan.
Barcelona continued to buzz around Athletic's penalty area, but the Catalans couldn't connect with the all-important final pass. So, in the 20th minute, Messi decided there was no need for the final pass if he does everything himself. Receiving the ball on the right wing, Messi was quickly surrounded by three players, Rico, Beñat and Balenziaga, but Messi calmly pushed the ball past them and squeezed through to win acres of space. Now in the penalty area, he skipped past Laporte before powering the ball inside of the near post and just out of reach of Herrerin to put Barcelona in the lead. You can't give a goal like that justice with words.
Barcelona continued to dominate on the pitch and could've scored another four goals before the half-hour mark had it not been for the Basque goalkeeper. First, in the 26th minute, Messi played Suarez through and the Uruguay international sent a picture perfect low cross to the wide open Neymar, but from in close Neymar couldn't beat Herrerin. Herrerin would make another great save the very next minute, with Pique heading Messi's long free kick on.
In the 28th minute, Alves brilliantly found Neymar in the penalty area with a 30 yard pass. Neymar did very well to control the difficult ball, but waited too long to find an open teammate in the middle before missing the goal altogether with the shot. Two minutes later, Messi played Alba through with an over the top pass, and Alba sent a very dangerous ball to the middle, but not Neymar nor Suarez were able to get in position to tap the ball home.
Football has often taught us that if you don't take your chance, the opponent will make you pay, and with the amount of misses during that stretch that could've easily become reality once again. But Barcelona were able to add to their lead in the 36th minute with one of the best team goals of the season. Rakitić and Messi played a one-two on the right side before the Croatian played a lovely through ball to Suarez. Suarez quickly looked to the other side and seeing Neymar wide open on the far side he wasted no time and supplied another perfect ball to his teammate who made no mistake this time, calmly slotting the ball into the back of the net. With the goal, the trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez became the highest scoring trio in history with 119 goals, surpassing former Real Madrid trident of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain.
Barcelona remained the better of the two teams for the remainder of the half, but Athletic were able to get close to halving Barcelona's lead in the 41st minute. Alba was not careful on the left side and turned the ball over to Iraola who quickly supplied a pass to the middle where Williams powered a shot on goal, but only managed to graze the crossbar. Barça would take the last shot of the half though, from a direct Messi free kick, but Herrerin was once again in good position to make the save. Carlos Velasco Carballo wasted no time and whistled for halftime quickly after the 45 minute were up.
The second half started in a similar fashion in which the first started, with Athletic playing very competitive football, but this time Barcelona didn't have as many problems with the high pressure as they had in the opening minutes of the game. With Athletic now forced to play more attacking football, Barcelona looked to create their chances on the counter attack, but the center-half duo of Laporte and Etxeita coped with danger very well. Meanwhile, Athletic had their best stretch of the match around the 55 minute mark when Barcelona lacked some conviction in defense to clear the ball, but ter Stegen was able to deal with everything sent into his air space.
Surprisingly, Barcelona were the first team to make a substitution as Lucho replaced Iniesta with Xavi in the 55th minute. Enrique has not made it a habit of making changes this early in the game. In the next minute, a lucky bounce off of Laporte created a chance for Suarez, but out of nowhere dove Etxeita to block Suarez's shot.
Valverde made his first substitution in the 58th minute, taking off natural-right-back-turned-right-winger-for-this-game, Iraola, and replaced him with Markel Susaeta, who is a much bigger threat in attack. The change also brought in some tactical maneuvering as Athletic now played in a much more familiar 4-3-3 formation.
In the first half, after the early pressure, Athletic quickly faded, but in the second 45 minutes the "hosts" remained much more competitive, but they were unable to break through Barcelona's organized defensive ranks. In fact, Barcelona continuously looked more likely to score next, but their attacks didn't result in shots on target as often as the Catalans would've liked. Over and over again Neymar, Suarez and Messi brilliantly combined in transition, but the end product was lacking. Barcelona didn't get their next good look on goal until the 66th minute when Neymar went on a long solo run, but from a great position to take the shot Neymar almost hit the corner flag.
With Xavi now dictating play and with time on their side Barcelona didn't shy away from long attacks when they were facing a well-positioned defense. A brilliant example of that started in the 72nd minute and came to fruition in the 74th. Barcelona didn't lose possession of the ball for that period and patiently waited for an opening. Eventually the opening came and the play was over when Messi tapped a lovely Alves cross into the back of the net.
Immediately after the goal Valverde made two substitutions, taking off Riko and Beñat, and replaced them with Ander Iturraspe and Ibai Gomez. Three minutes later, Enrique countered with a double substitution of his own. Alba and Suarez made way and were replaced by Jeremy Mathieu and Pedro.
The changes brought new life to Athletic, especially Ibai who after barely two minute on the pitch found Williams with an accurate cross that the youngster headed just inside the post. It's difficult to imagine ter Stegen being able to make that save, but Busquets should've done better to prevent the smaller forward from getting the header on goal. Ibai continued to create things around Barcelona's penalty area, but apart from one shot straight at ter Stegen, the Basques couldn't create much more.
The excellent game that saw Barcelona dominate for large stages and Athletic leave their hearts on the pitch - even after they were 3-0 down - was marred in the end by some unnecessary shenanigans. Everything started when Neymar tried a back-heel flip over Bustinza which the Basques took exception to, deeming in showboat-ish and over the top. But that is type of player Neymar is and ganging up on the player, trying to beat him up on the pitch is not necessary.
But those antics aside, the game almost came to a fairytale ending as Xavi came within inches of scoring on his Camp Nou goodbye. Neymar won a free kick on the left side after he was once more hacked down and it was only fair that Xavi stepped up to take it. And he took it brilliantly, curling it over the wall, but he was denied by the outside part of the post. As emotions settled, the four minutes of added time became a mere formality and Barcelona were able to celebrate their second title of the season.
Only one more game left now, the Champions League Final on Saturday.
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