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Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona, Copa del Rey: Final Score 4-2, Barça lose heartbreaking quarter-final at San Mamés in extra time

The Williams Brothers strike again, and Barça are out

Athletic Club De Bilbao V Fc Barcelona - Copa Del Rey Photo By Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images

Barcelona are out of this season’s Copa del Rey thanks to a painful heartbreaking 4-2 loss against Athletic Bilbao in the quarter-finals at the Cathedral of San Mamés on Wednesday night. Barça conceded less than a minute into the game but found a way back and fought until the very end of an epic Cup tie that went deep into extra time, but noted Barça Killer Iñaki Williams once again proved decisive as Athletic eliminated the Blaugrana at San Mamés for the third time in the last five years.


Barça started the game by going behind thanks to a comedy of errors at the back: a sequence that started with a bad pass by Lamine Yamal led to a cross from Yuri Berchiche, and the Blaugrana made a mess of the clearance thanks to Iñaki Peña’s indecision in the box and the ball eventually fell to Gorka Guruzeta, who found the net just 37 seconds into the game.

It was a stunning beginning that came as a result of Bilbao’s very effective high pressing, which was a fixture of the home team’s early strategy and forced Barça into several aimless, wasteful long balls that kept them from establishing any rhythm in possession and gave the ball back time and time again to an Athletic side that quickly moved it from back to front and created one dangerous attack after another.

After 10 very difficult minutes to start the game Barça finally managed to slow down Athletic’s momentum and have more of the possession, looking to build patiently from the back to get the ball to the forward players in good positions to attack. The Catalans struggled to create a real chance, however, and to make matters worse they lost yet another key player as Alejandro Balde was forced off with an apparent hamstring injury and had to be replaced by young Héctor Fort at left-back after just 23 minutes.

Three minutes after that, though, came an unlikely but crucial equalizer: a beautiful long ball from Andreas Christensen found Ferran Torres on the left wing, who then found Pedri in great position inside the box; the magician was initially dispossesed before he could score, but the attempted clearance by the Athletic backline hit the onrushing Robert Lewandowski and went into the back of the net for a weird but very important goal for the visitors.

The goal gave Barça confidence and upped their hunger and intensity without the ball, and it was the Blaugrana’s turn to suffocate Athletic in possession and get the ball back. And Barça’s improved overall play didn’t take too long to yield a result: six minutes after the equalizer the ball found Lamine Yamal on the right wing, and the 16-year-old decided to make some magic happen with a sensational solo run into the center and a beautiful curling shot that found the bottom corner and completed the comeback at the half-hour mark.

Athletic were very clearly stunned by the quick nature of Barça’s turnaround and lost all of their steam, and despite a few trips forward in the final minutes of the period they never came close to scaring the visitors’ backline.

The halftime whistle came to end a thrilling opening frame, and after a nightmare start Barça had showed great composure and fighting spirit to keep playing, find their way back in the game and eventually go into the interval with the lead. But the tie was obviously far from over, and the Catalans knew they would need to survive Athletic’s early blitz in the second half and manage the game well to confirm a spot in the semis.


Athletic’s expected early blitz did come, with the home team dominating the ball and Barça looking to retreat and not concede as much space to try and protect their lead. But the Blaugrana’s plan didn’t work: just four minutes into the period a cross from Nico Williams came from the left wing and Peña once again was very indecisive coming out of his goal, allowing Oihan Sancet all the time and space in the world to head the ball home and tie the game.

The home team then got boosted by the return of their talisman, Iñaki Williams, who came back sooner than expected from the African Cup of Nations and came on at the hour mark. His speed and power were immediately felt as soon as he entered the fray, and Athletic looked like the team most likely to find the winning goal midway through the final period.

Barça almost scored against the run of play on a counter-attack when Lewandowski released Yamal all alone with plenty of space to run and just the goalkeeper in front of him, but Lamine’s attempted chip over Julen Agirrezabala went wide of the mark and the youngster missed a massive chance.

As we reached the final 15 minutes of regulation Barça were clearly the team most interested in avoiding extra-time, with the Blaugrana showing more urgency and willing to take some risks and leave spaces in behind. Xavi Hernández made his first attacking substitution around that time, with João Félix replacing Lewandowski and Ferran Torres moving up top looking to use his pace to cause damage in behind the Bilbao backline.

And with five minutes to go, it looked as though Barça had found the winner: Yamal smartly came from behind and took the ball away from Bilbao center-back Aitor Paredes, ran untouched into the box, rounded the keeper and was in perfect position to score with his weaker right foot and an open net in front of him. But the youngster somehow missed the target completely, wasting his second monster chance of the period and keeping Athletic alive in the tie as we reached the dying seconds.

Neither team managed to create a good enough chance in stoppage time, and the final whistle of regulation came to send the tie into extra time.


The two teams used the first 15 minutes of the overtime period to basically recharge their batteries after a frenetic end to regulation, with Barça dominating possession while Athletic sat back and absorbed pressure. Neither team expended too much energy, and both sides seemed content with the score before changing ends for the second half of extra time.

But on the very last play of the first half, after Sergi Roberto lost the ball in midfield and created a counter-attack for the home team, Asier Villalibre’s pass was deflected onto the path of Iñaki Williams who found himself one-on-one with Peña and hit the post at first before tapping home his own rebound to give the home team a precious lead with 15 minutes left to play.

Xavi looked to his bench for one last roll of the dice and sent on Marc Guiu hoping that the young striker’s propensity for dramatic late goals would help rescue the Blaugrana again and force a penalty shootout. Guiu had an excellent chance with 10 minutes to go but fired straight at the keeper, and Athletic nearly sealed the victory on the ensuing counter-attack but Peña made his best save of the night to stop Iñaki Williams from point-blank range.

Barça had no choice but to send everyone forward at the death looking for a miracle equalizer, while Bilbao looked for one last chance to kill the game off on the counter. And that chance finally arrived in the 120th minute as Iñaki’s younger brother Nico Williams found himself all alone at the edge of the box and used the outside of his right foot to curl the ball into the top corner and settle the tie for good.

The final whistle came to end another epic Copa del Rey encounter between these two historic rivals, and Barça once again find themselves on the wrong end of a thriller at San Mamés. Athletic somehow always find a way to win in the Cup at home against Barça, but the Blaugrana did fight until the very end. They just came up short in Bilbao. A lot of other teams do.

Athletic: Agirrezabala; Lekue (De Marcos 90’), Vivian, Paredes, Yuri; Prados (Herrera 90’), Vesga (Gómez 46’ (Jauregizar 105’)); Ares (I. Williams 59’), Sancet, N. Williams; Guruzeta (Villalibre 73’)

Goals: Guruzeta (1’), Sancet (49’), I. Williams (105+2’), N. Williams (120+1’)

Barcelona: Peña; Kounde, Araujo, Christensen (Cubarsí 70’), Balde (Fort 23’); Gündogan, De Jong; Yamal (Guiu 106’), Pedri (Roberto 99’), Ferran; Lewandowski (Félix 78’)

Goals: Lewandowski (26’), Yamal (32’)

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