Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao, Copa del Rey final, May 13, 2009
Barcelona were all set to complete the first stage of a wonderful treble on Sunday evening, leading 3-1 with 12 minutes remaining against Villareal, before they threw away the chance to wrap up the La Liga title by letting in two late goals. As a result the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao could now be the first leg of three trophies for the Catalan club, culminating in the Champions League final in Rome in two weeks time.
Despite their attacking brilliance this season, Pep Guardiolaâ€™s side come into this game looking tired and short of many of their star names. Particularly worryingly, Andres Iniesta joined the injury list late on against Villareal and he will be watching from the stands at the Mestalla along with Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez.
Also missing will be Eric Abidal who was sent off for the second time in four days last Sunday, and there has been chat in the Spanish press that Guardiola will persist with â€œCopa del Rey goalkeeper” Jose Manuel Pinto who, if Victor Valdes is anything to go by, will give Bilbao some hope going into this final.
Incredibly, despite all the furor surrounding this Barcelona side, they have only won one game in their last five â€“ the famous 6-2 win in the Bernabeu. Increasingly, there is becoming a lot of pressure on the likes of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Lionel Messi and Samuel Etoâ€™o. These players are the spine of the team and must play in all crucial games and the latter two, Messi and Etoâ€™o, are beginning to look a little tired and over played.
Adding extra spice to the final is the fact that Bilbao have not been pushovers for Barca this season, unlike many of their peers who have rolled over before the Catalans this year. Barca narrowly won 1-0 away in October and 2-0 at home in March.
The Basque side can also boast some fine young attacking talents to trouble Barcaâ€™s tired backline. Fernando Llorente has been in good form this season scoring 14 goals in 31 league games and Javi Martinez, just 20, is a burgeoning box-to-box midfielder who has been watched by Rafa Benitez and his army of scouts for a number of months.
As has been mentioned elsewhere on this site by my erstwhile colleague Arthur, Bilbao also have a strong record in this competition and would equal Barcaâ€™s own record for wins in the Copa del Rey if they were to win on Wednesday night.
Most crucially of all, Bilbaoâ€™s players should be fresh and raring to go against Barcaâ€™s tired legs as they beat Betis on Saturday with an under strength side which not only kept seven first team players rested but also secured their status as a Primera Division club.
To add yet another dimension to this final, the King of Spain will watch this game from the stands as a Catalan team takes on a Basque side. But, having regard to the seperatists historical roots of both clubs participating, there is a strong possibility that both sets of fans will boo the national anthem, which could leave a bad taste to the showpiece affair.
These two teams also have history in the competition, having contested the 1984 final which Bilbao won 1-0 in one of the dirtiest finals in history – the aply named “Battle of the Bernabeu” – where Maradona and friends memorably went around karate-kicking their opponents. (Highlights here.)
Bilbaoâ€™s fanatical support are expected in big numbers and will be praying their teams fresh legs will make a difference. But, as has been mentioned numerous times this season, there is something special about this Barcelona side and even with all the injury and suspension issues that have dogged the league leaders, somehow they will surely come through the first leg of their charge for the triple.
101gg predicts: Barcelona 3 – Athletic Bilbao 1 (66/1)
Full match odds here.