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Keys to the Copa del Rey Final: Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao

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The Copa rivals meet again

FC Barcelona v SD Huesca - La Liga Santander Photo by Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a season of doubt, it’s a special gift to culers around the world to see Barcelona one game away from lifting a trophy.

Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao are stalwarts in the Copa del Rey, having played each other in three finals in the last twelve years, including a chess match between football masterminds Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa in 2012.

This year’s trophy is no consolation prize.

It’s Barcelona’s best chance at a title, and Athletic will be looking to avenge their loss to Real Sociedad in last year’s final that was played two weeks ago.

These two proud clubs will be giving it everything they have, and it should make for an entertaining affair.

Koeman’s golden chance to win a big game

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Ronald Koeman has received a vote of confidence from new president Joan Laporta, and will be back next year as the manager of Barcelona barring anything truly unforeseen.

He can’t take it for granted. The winds of support change quickly, and going into next year he will want a trophy under his belt as something to build on.

The big positive from the Dutchman has been his ability to stabilize a team in crisis.

He inherited many of the players who carry the shame of countless performance meltdowns when appearing on the biggest stage.

Over the course of a long season, he has adapted and maintained a high level of play across all competitions. Fans should be relieved, if not truly grateful for the product overall.

But Barça fans deserve more. They are proud. Losing two Clásicos, a Supercopa final, and getting knocked out early in the Champions League is a test of patience.

Beating Athletic Club on Saturday is the evidence needed to show Koeman’s project is worth investing in.

Whether he goes with a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 is secondary to one big factor that has been missing for far too long: attitude.

Coming out of the dressing room, within minutes we will know whether his team was prepared for the battle.

It’s one game, 90 minutes, to prove that winning a trophy matters, and that they’re willing to fight for it.

Messi gets the last laugh after the Super Copa debacle

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

At this point, it would be surprising to see Lionel Messi leave Barcelona in the summer.

Still, there is a lot of season left with a lot on the line, and ultimately what La Pulga cares about most is winning.

2021 has generally been a positive year for Messi and Barcelona.

Joan Laporta has given the club hope, and the team has responded by making a run for titles.

It all started, however, with a setback early on in January in the Supercopa final, where Messi was ejected for retaliation as the minutes to a disappointing loss wound down.

The Copa del Rey is the more important trophy, and what a coincidence that just a few months later Messi will have the opportunity to get the last laugh against the same opponent.

For all the talk about Koeman not being able to win the big game, Messi also has a lot to prove as someone who’s considered by most to be the best player in the world.

Simply put, opportunities are slipping away, and when the final story is told, he will want to be able to say that it ended as it started. With trophies.

Messi needs to find a way to impact this game.

He’ll need his teammates to step up by winning balls, playing fast, and getting involved.

But Messi is the one who needs to set the example.

Will he press high? Will he set the pace? Will he put away a decisive goal with a clinical finish?

This game would be all the sweeter if Messi is the one to lead the way to victory.

Athletic will bring the intensity and Barcelona must match it

Real Sociedad v Athletic Club - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Athletic Club players relish the opportunity to beat Barcelona.

It gives them life.

In that respect, Marcelino is the perfect manager for the job.

He beat Barcelona for the title in 2019 while coaching Valencia, and looked like he was living his best life when beating them again in January to claim the Supercopa title.

Let’s not forget why Barcelona lost that game.

Athletic came out like a hurricane. Physicality, pressure, and desire.

The first half Barça looked shell shocked, but were able to recuperate and eventually make a real game of it after Antoine Griezmann put away a goal near the end of the half.

Barca were in a position to put away the game at 2-1, but Athletic never gave up and made the Blaugrana pay for their inability to defend set pieces.

Has the lesson been learned?

It appears so based on months of consistent performances on both sides of the ball.

But in a one-game, winner-take-all final, anything can happen.

Barça won’t be as physical at Athletic, but they can neutralize it by being dominant and surgical in possession. That means speed, and always with an eye up the field.

It should be one of the best Copa finals in years.

The trophy is more coveted than ever.

Time for Barça to do the work and claim what is rightfully theirs.