5 factors that will decide the Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao
On paper, the upcoming Copa del Rey final has one clear winner in FC Barcelona, but Athletic Bilbao will be doing their utmost to arrest them in their tracks, you can be sure.
With La Liga now finalised, Barca ought to be in high spirits, having finally captured their 23rd title ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo's high-flying Real Madrid. Playing some stylish football all season long, the Barcelonistas have been treated to a visual spectacle from week to week as their players have continued to serve up some wondrous skill.
As for Bilbao, they remain the plucky underdogs for this encounter, with a satisfying campaign now behind them. Because although they will aim to play without fear, it’s hard to see exactly how they will get anything out of this one at first glance.
So, let’s examine the five key factors which ought to determine the outcome of this weekend’s huge cup final.
Messi will set Camp Nou alight once more
How many times has Messi made us all scratch our heads in disbelief this season? Quite a few, that’s for sure.
In truth, he’s likely to make us do it a few more times when the match gets underway – after all, with the question marks, doubts and scepticism from the earlier part of the season all well and truly gone, he has managed to maintain his peak through some of the most important matches.
Averaging one goal or one assist for each cup game he has played in this season, the diminutive dangerman has been relentless in his desire to have an impact on matches. Whether it was his 85th-minute winner against Atletico Madrid back in January or his couple of assists in both legs against Villarreal, he has rarely gone missing in the big games.
In a campaign where much has been made (rightly or wrongly) about his willingness to work as part of a team more so than his main contender for the Pichichi trophy, there can be little doubting the facts. Far more keen to help his team by whatever means necessary, the Argentine international has laid on treats for the Camp Nou faithful at every twist and turn of the season.
In fact, since the turn of 2015 alone he has netted an astonishing 19 goals at their home stadium compared to 14 away, proof, if ever it was needed, that while the most talented player of the last 10 years always plays phenomenally, he plays even better at home.
Head-to-head record doesn’t hold much hope for Los Leones
Having met twice already this season, the form guide doesn’t hold out much hope for a result in favour of Bilbao.
Intriguingly, however, there is a sliver of optimism for fans of Ernesto Valverde’s outfit this weekend and that is their superior record of playing finals in the city of Barcelona. As reported by Barca’s official site, Los Leones have clinched as many as half a dozen cups there, while their opponents have only taken four – so history is ever so slightly on their side.
Sure, it is just a technicality, but it’s certainly worth mentioning as whatever happens in terms of the result, we will have history as neither side have ever played each other at this venue in the final before.
Unfortunately for the underdogs, though, the main statistic of note is the fact they have not beaten Luis Enrique’s men this season. The closest they came to competing arrived in early February when they put two past Claudio Bravo – that said, they conceded five that same afternoon.
The only other occasion when they did battle this season was when the La Liga champions overcame them with relative ease on a score-line of 2-0. In the cold light of day, it’s difficult to see exactly how Valverde’s charges can get a result unless they instigate a drastic change of tactics and mentality.
Moreover, it has been almost 14 years since Bilbao beat Barca at the Camp Nou – that last win arriving back in 2001 when goals from Urzaiz and Ezquerro were enough to outdo a second-half Rivaldo strike.