Barcelona’s defense of the Copa del Rey title has come to an end at the Round of 16 stage thanks to a brutal 3-2 loss to Athletic Bilbao after 120 minutes of highly competitive football at San Mamés. Barça played poorly but showed great fighting spirit to come back from behind twice in regulation, but conceded a penalty in extra-time and lost both Ansu Fati and Pedri to injuries in what might go down as the most costly defeat of the season for Xavi’s men.
Barça started the game already losing: just 90 seconds into the game Nico Williams beat Jordi Alba for pace on the right side and crossed it along the ground to find Iker Muniain down the left, and the Bilbao captain saw Marc-André ter Stegen out of position and chipped the German to score an amazing goal and put the home team ahead.
Athletic started the game with an insane level of intensity and Barça simply couldn’t match it, and the Blaugrana struggled to get out of their own half thanks to some sloppy passing and very little movement by the forward players. But after 15 minutes the Blaugrana finally started passing the ball in the Athletic half and looked a little more in control.
And in their first real chance of the game, Barça scored a beautiful goal: after an excellent passing sequence down the left wing the ball found Ferran Torres, who cut inside on his right foot and curled a beauty into the top corner to score his first Barça goal in style.
The final 25 minutes of the half followed a simple script: Barça had the ball but wasted possession time and time again with more sloppy passing, and Athletic created really good chances on the counter. Young Nico Williams was an absolute thorn in Alba’s side and every Bilbao opportunity came from that flank.
Athletic finished the first half with a five-minute blitz thanks to three consecutive set pieces, and one of them resulted in a spectacular reflex save by Marc-André ter Stegen to stop a header by Raúl García from point-blank range. The final whistle of the half came, and at halftime Barça were lucky to not be behind and still had a chance to win the game in the second half.
For large parts of the second half there was little to no action as Barça took control of possession but struggled to break down a very well-organized Athletic defense, while the home team couldn’t keep up the same intensity of the first half and didn’t create a real chance on the counter.
Xavi brought Nico González, Ansu Fati and Frenkie De Jong off the bench early on and all three had a very positive effect on the game, making Barça’s attack more dynamic and less predictable, and the Blaugrana looked more dangerous and fired more shots on goal. They never truly threatened the Bilbao goal, however, and as we reached the final 10 minutes the game was very much there for the taking.
As extra-time looked more and more likely, Athletic found the winner: Iker Muniain sent a free-kick into the box, Ter Stegen saved the initial header by Álex Berenguer but the ball fell to Iñigo Martínez who was first to the rebound and found a way to send it home.
Barça had very little time to find a late equalizer and couldn’t create a real chance, but just as their hopes seemed to fade the Blaugrana somehow, someway made it 2-2 when Jordi Alba sent a cross into the box, Dani Alves won the second ball with a spectacular bicycle kick assist and Pedri found the back of the net in the 93rd minute.
The final whistle of regulation came, and we were headed to extra-time.
The first half of the extra period could not have gone any worse for Barça, who lost both Ansu Fati and Pedri to muscle injuries and conceded a third goal when Jordi Alba was called for a handball in the box and the penalty was given after a VAR check. Muniain stepped up to the spot, scored his second of the game and made it 3-2 Athletic.
Barça had 15 minutes to try and take it to penalties and Bilbao put every player behind the ball to protect their lead, and managed to frustrate Barça who couldn’t come back for a third time and saw the final whistle come to confirm their exit from the Cup.
This is an awful loss in so many ways, and Xavi’s young troops still have a lot to learn and improve. But the absolute worst part is losing Ansu and Pedri to injury AGAIN. Something is badly wrong when the future of the club just can’t stay healthy. Worrying times.
Athletic: Agirrezabala; De Marcos (Lekue 105’), Vivian, Martínez, Yuri (Balenziaga 91’); N. Williams (Zarraga 110’), D. García, Vesga (Nolaskoain 117’), Muniain; Sancet (I. Williams 52’), R. García (Berenguer 79’)
Goals: Muniain (2’, pen 105+1’), Martínez (86’)
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Alves, Araujo, Piqué, Alba; Pedri (Braithwaite 105+3’), Busquets, Gavi (De Jong 61’); Ferran, Jutglà (Fati 61’ (Dest 96’)), Abde (Nico 46’)
Goals: Ferran (20’), Pedri (90+3’)