Barcelona collect 27th Copa del Rey title with a 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.
The atmosphere in Camp Nou was already hypertense. A critical cup final taking place between two of Spain’s most vocal and proud autonomous communities — Catalunya and Basque Country — in Catalunya was always going to provide such a mood. Add in the fact that Spain’s King Felipe would be in attendance to witness Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao battle it out for the Copa del Rey, aka The King’s Cup, and it was clear this would be a memorable night. It began just so.
As the King took his seat, along with the club executives and 100,000 relentless supporters of both clubs, an aggressive show of cultural ownership took centerstage. As the Spanish national anthem (“La Marcha Real”) began ceremoniously being played during the pre-match rituals, both sets of supporters — ie. everyone in attendance minus the King’s court — began jeering to the heavens, drowning out the already-wordless tune meant to honor the nation. It was a display of disapproval as much as it was an unadulterated reclamation of cultural identity from the Catalans and the Basques alike, both of whom have been lobbying for independence from Spain for years.
The much-expected boos made for an interesting dynamic heading into the actual football game. It was like the Stanley Cup playoffs post-game handshake line, except it was before the game, and it was entirely unphysical. That being said, it was audibly sensational, and surely unnerved the royal targets, which was its sole intention.
The match started with the visitors Athletic (who were technically the “home” side due to the odd cup rule of being the older club) showing some early vigor, troubling Barcelona on both ends of the pitch. Ten minutes in, however, order began to restore itself as the Catalans’ hold on possession tightened.
Then it happened. Well, HE happened, to be exact.
At 20 minutes, Lionel Messi grabbed the ball from teammate Dani Alves near the halfway line. Everything after was a blur, but I’ll try to describe it for you.
Face-to-face with Mikel Balenziaga, the Argentine sprinted with the ball down the touchline. He then deceived an on-rushing Benat before cutting back and nutmegging the still-cursed-from-earlier Balenziaga.
Next up was Mikel Rico, who Messi embarrassingly — but understandably — forced into a forward stumble as he helplessly tried to thwart the genius.
The last defender en route, Aymeric Laporte, fell victim to the classic Pulga feint-and-cut-to-the-left move. From there, there was only goalkeeper Iago Herrerin to beat. Messi beat him at his near post, just because.
In the ever-expanding pantheon of Messi goals, it belongs near the top. Some could argue that it was his greatest ever with reason. It had the lengthy run of his Getafe goal in 2007 (also in the Copa del Rey) and the penalty-box slaloming technique of his Zaragoza goal in 2010. However, this one coming in a cup final gives it a special nod above all others. Maybe this whole King’s Cup should be named after him?
Barca weren’t done, of course. They never are.
On 36 minutes, a dazzling succession of tiki-taka triangle passes between Messi, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez and Neymar atop Athletic’s penalty area led to the Brazilian tapping into an open goal to make it 2-0.
By the second half, Athletic were demoralized. The Blaugrana continued to control the play with little resistance from the Lions for most of the match’s remainder. In the 74th, Messi evaded a lethargic Bilbao defense to knock in a simply-played cross from Alves to complete his brace.
At this point, with the match veritably and spiritually over, a couple of poignant substitutions were allowed to be made to honor a couple of veterans. The first was last week’s hero Xavi Hernandez coming on for Andres Iniesta, in what was, unlike last Saturday, his “actual” final match at Camp Nou. For Athletic, Spanish international and 12-year servant of the club Andoni Iraola came off for Markel Susaeta. Both Xavi and Iraola came up through the youth academy of their respective boyhood clubs and will be leaving for pastures anew. Qatar for Xavi, and America for Iraola.
The last 15 minutes saw a late rush from Athletic. Inaki Williams’ 79th minute goal revealed a slither of hope to the Basque’s cause, but it was merely in vain. Neymar tried a rainbow-flick over Unai Bustinza in the final moments, which stirred an already agitated Athletic team, causing patches of unneeded argy bargy between both sets of players. But their fighting was in vain, too. In the end, the Basques could only exert so much energy and will against a vastly superior opponent.
The match finished 3-1 to Barcelona.
If not Catalunya’s, this was certainly Barca’s day. Xavi and Iniesta — joint-captains on the day — visited King Felipe in the stands to lift the trophy together. Two-thirds of the Treble complete. Next stop: Berlin.