It was an exciting display of Spanish football in the Basque capital, and the better team won on the night.
And it really wasn’t as close as it seemed.
Ernesto Valvede and his Athletic Club came out of the gates fired up and ready to take the Copa del Rey seriously. As they do every year.
This is a team capable of producing offense. In this game, they produced a shocking 29 shots in 120 minutes of play.
29 - Barcelona conceded 29 shots in 120 minutes of play against Athletic, their most in a single game in all competitions since at least the 2013/14 season. Exhausted. pic.twitter.com/XN1wj6qQUj— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 24, 2024
But it was their defensive approach that won them the game.
Neatly sitting back in a middle block, and capitalizing on Barca’s mistakes as they played out of the back. In the opening minute, it was Lamine Yamal who gave away a ball to open the scoring. In extra time, it was Sergi Roberto in the exact same area. And that was the ballgame.
Tactically, Xavi played right into the trap that Valverde set.
Barcelona deserve credit for fighting their way back into the game at the end of the first half. Lamine fought like hell to atone for his early mistake with an incredible run up the field, and a brilliant finish, to give his team the lead going into halftime.
But Athletic Club were once again determined at the start of the second period, and once again, were the better team overall.
In fact, it looked like it was Lamine Yamal versus their entire team.
He had two incredible wide open chances in front of goal that came from his own making. Those misses illustrate how talented he is, while also exposing the technical shortcomings of a young player who is bursting at the seams, but still needs time to develop into a complete footballer.
We could give Xavi and Barcelona some grace by recognizing the inexperience of his team on the night.
In addition to Lamine, 17-year old Hector Fort came on to replace the injured Alejandro Balde, and was a true warrior until the end. This guy has a future at the Camp Nou.
Just a few days past 16, Pau Cubarsí came on to replace Andreas Christensen, and didn’t put a foot wrong.
Conspicuously, Vitor Roque was left on the bench. Instead, Xavi gave overtime minutes to teenager Marc Guiu, who came close to scoring late, with confident and threatening movement in and around the box.
Overall, there were bright spots from this game.
Barcelona played hard, and didn’t back down after going down a goal. Sam Mamés was rocking as it always is when the Catalan giants come to town, and the Basque players responded with a determination to come out on top.
It was the combination of physicality and tactics that did Barcelona in.
We all know that Athletic players will put their body on the line. And most likely, Barcelona won’t come close to winning that battle.
By the end of the game, Barcelona was hobbled, cramping, and barely able to stand.
Athletic Club looked like they could go another 30 minutes.
Iñaki and Nico Williams were manhandling Barca players desperate to prevent them from getting away on the counter attack.
Which leads to the bigger problem.
Xavi was outclassed by Valverde.
It was a historically bad defensive performance by Barcelona, with so many shots conceded, from an opponent who only had 39% of the possession.
Frankly, Athletic Club was wasteful with their chances, and should have scored more on the day.
Valverde didn’t have his men sit deep. They were right there at the midfield line as Barcelona naively, and ineffectively, played from the back.
He got his team ready to win the start of the first half, the second half, and the extra time period.
This was a game Xavi simply had to win in a competition that Barcelona had to prioritize.
His team played with spirit, and we should commend the courage of the “boys” on the field, but they were ultimately outsmarted.
That was a fun match for the neutrals.
The Copa del Rey doesn’t disappoint.
But Barcelona isn’t enjoying their football.
They’re still searching for themselves as their focus turns towards the Champions League, and staying the course in La Liga.
There are lessons to learn from your failures.
A little pragmatism and humility might not hurt going forward.