Three years after they were beaten 3-0 by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, Athletic Bilbao have the opportunity to get the revenge on the Catalans and add to the 23 Spanish Cup titles already in their possession. But, with the final played at Camp Nou, it goes without saying that the La Liga champions are the odds on favourites to emerge victorious.
The 2011/2012 season was a source of great joy and major disappointment for Athletic fans, given that los Leones reached Europa League and Copa del Rey finals under Marcelo Bielsa, only to suffer 3-0 defeats to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. The club began to show signs of recovery under Ernesto Valverde, who led the Basque side to their second ever Champions League appearance, even if they eventually crashed out in the group stage. Los Leones have since showed a great deal of improvement, steadily climbing the league standings to achieve a seventh-place finish and secure a Europa League berth, while defeating Celta Vigo, Malaga and Espanyol to reach the Copa del Rey final. With 23 trophies to their name, Athletic are the most successful club to have taken part in the competition after Barcelona (26 titles), and nobody doubts the players will give their all in an attempt to prove worthy opponents for Europe’s in-form side. Despite the fact that the match is played at Camp Nou, I fully expect los Leones to adopt a positive approach, even if that might not be the right way to get the result against the Catalans. The good news is that starting centre-backs Xabi Etxeita and Aymeric Laporte have recovered from injury, with only Iker Muniain missing out.
Last two games of the season will also be the most important for Barcelona, who are two wins away from what would be their second treble of titles in history, having previously lifted La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies at the end of 2008/2009 season. That would be just reward for team’s performances this season which have been nothing short of impressive. Summer signing Luis Suarez needed a while to get accustomed to playing with superstars Leo Messi and Neymar, and even though the Argentine initially protested against Luis Enrique’s decision to play him on the right win, it was the bold move from the talented coach that helped the Catalans flourish. Since that moment, Barcelona and Leo Messi have played their best football in a while, whereas Luis Suarez developed into a key member of the squad and all their teammates contributed to some amazing results. The Catalans quickly neutralized Real Madrid’s advantage in La Liga and went on to secure the trophy ahead of the final day, while easing off to Champions League and Copa del Rey finals. Barcelona are now set to host Athletic at their Camp Nou, and the latest reports suggest Luis Suarez will recover in time to start up front. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will replace Claudio Bravo in goal.
Looking at Barcelona’s recent performances, I cannot see how Athletic are going to prevent them from lifting the trophy, but I do expect los Leones to play attacking football and score at least once. Therefore, my advice is to back the Catalans to win, but without keeping a clean sheet in the process.
Verdict: Barcelona + both teams to score
Best odds: 7/4