Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Preview : Copa Del Rey Final

Venue : Mestalla, Valencia

A legend is being created and we are in the midst of its making. FC Barcelona have always stood for more than just winning. The form of footballing achievement being regarded as just as vital as the conquest itself. But yet, the ultimate glory, the proof of the pudding as it were, lies in tasting victory with this purposeful and seminal style of play.

It is fitting then that this etching into the annals of history should start at the lesser conquest of the Copa Del Rey and move on unwavering against the vicissitudes of fortune to the loftier targets of the League Crown and then the Champions League. Standing in the way, like a metaphor come to life lies the hard as granite stumbling block of Athletic Bilbao. The two grandfathers of Spanish football, who have waged separate battles against the enforced totalitarianism of the central Castilian power and are responsible for much of the rich tapestry that is Spain’s cultural history, face each other once again for the original footballing crown, the Copa Del Rey.

Athletic Club Bilbao were formed in 1898 (although there is some dispute about the year) one year ahead of FC Barcelona in 1899. The two clubs contested the final in the first edition of the Copa Del Rey in 1902 with Bilbao coming out on top. Barcelona did win the inaugural edition of the Primera Liga in 1929 but finished second behind Bilbao the next season. Along with Real Madrid these 2 sides enjoy the unique distinction of never having been relegated in the league’s history.

As for the Copa Del Rey, each has won the Cup on 24 occasions, more than any other team in Spain. They have managed to meet in the final on 6 occasions with the honours being even, 3 going each way. The last such occasion was in 1984 when Athletic emerged winners (1 – 0). Neither has fared too well in the competition in recent years with that 1984 triumph being Bilbao’s last while Barca’s was more than a decade ago in 1998.

Contrast in Playing Styles and Approach
Bilbao’s famed cantera policy of fielding only home-grown players has won them acclaim internationally although the theme is much disputed within the Basque province itself due to the club’s poaching of talents from other regional powerhouses such as Sociedad and also its rather loose definition of who may be regarded as home-grown. Nevertheless, in this era of big money transfers and bulk signings it is creditable that Bilbao have 14 of their current squad emerging from the cantera, a larger number than the 11 which Barça proudly tout. However, in the managerial role, while Barça have the cantera product Guardiola who wears his Catalan identity proudly on his sleeve, Atletic Bilbao have had no qualms about engaging foreign or Spanish managers.

Indeed, much of their style of play is defined by the influence of English managers and the home-bred Javier Clemente who favoured the “old 1-2-3” style of play (involving 3 touches of the ball from Goalkeeper to Centre Forward). Consequentially, Athletic Bilbao teams have always maintained a reputation for being dour and destructive. Nonetheless, their tenacity in remaining relevant in the Spain’s Primera Division with the limited resources intrinsic to their ”only Basque players” policy makes them difficult opponents. Joaquín Caparrós, in charge since 2007, has done little to change this entrenched style of play.

Recent Form
Athletic Bilbao came through the semifinals with a 2-1 win at Seville and thereafter beat Sevilla 3-0 in the home leg. Barça on the other hand came through with a win (2-0) at home and a draw (1-1) away against Mallorca having earlier made it past city rivals Espanyol.

The two league games earlier in the season saw Barça coming out on top on both occasions with a 1-0 win at San Mames and a 2-0 win at the Nou Camp. The last 5 league matches for the 2 teams yielded the following results :

FC Barcelona
18 Apr 09 Getafe 0 - 1 FC Barcelona
22 Apr 09 FC Barcelona 4 - 0 FC Sevilla
25 Apr 09 Valencia 2 - 2 FC Barcelona
2 May 09 Real Madrid 2 - 6 FC Barcelona
10 May 09 FC Barcelona 3 - 3 Villarreal

Athletic Bilbao
18 Apr 09 Athletic Bilbao 0 - 1 Deportivo
22 Apr 09 Numancia 1 - 2 Athletic Bilbao
26 Apr 09 Athletic Bilbao 2 - 1 Racing
3 May 09 Sporting Gijón 1 - 1 Athletic Bilbao
9 May 09 Athletic Bilbao 1 - 0 Betis Sevilla

Bilbao have hit a good vein of form to drag themselves back to midtable (11th position currently) after hovering close to the relegation zone earlier. With the European places out of sight as is also the threat of relegation, the Copa Del Rey offers to them what it has to many in the past, a chance to finish the season with some consolatory silverware.

The Copa Team Vs The Effect of Fatigue
Pep Guardiola has put out a distinctively different team for the Copa matches using his first team starters only occasionally and to good effect with substitutions. Here is a list of the minutes of the 13 players most used in the Cup matches.

1. Pinto 751minutes
2. Busquets 688mins
3. Bojan 669mins
4. Sylvinho 655mins
5. Alves 648mins
6. Hleb 583mins
7. Caceres 553mins
8. Toure 470mins
9. Pique 468mins
10. Iniesta 453mins
11. Gudjohnsen 376mins
12. Keita 376mins
13. Messi 376mins

Since the first week of April which was the last time they got a midweek break the team has played 2 matches per week continuously for the last 11 games, this being the 12th on the run. Since the game on April 4th against Valladolid :

Victor Valdes has started all 11 matches
Andres Iniesta has also started all 11 matches. (In fact, Iniesta has started every single game since his return from injury in the Copa semifinal 2nd leg against Mallorca)
Xavi did not start 1 game although he came on as a sub.
Dani Alves did not start 1 game but did come on as a sub.
Pique missed 1 game.
Eto’o missed 1 game.
Messi missed 2 games but came on as a sub in one of them.

A good deal of criticism, stemmed earlier by the positive results, against Guardiola’s abandoning of his rotation policy, has begun to surface as the effects of the taxing schedule begin to take its toll. It is also reasonable to suggest that Barça’s passing and movement based offense and full-court press style of defense require greater running and effort than that of other teams.

Starting Lineups
The question of whether to play the strongest lineup available or trust to those who have played a greater part in the Copa campaign has perhaps been simplified slightly for Pep Guardiola by the misfortune of injuries. This will allow him to strengthen the lineup to some extent while still retaining the majority of the squad from the players listed above. Besides, the vital role that could be played by these players given the possible absence of some regular starters before the season ends, makes it important for Guardiola to instil confidence within their ranks and display his faith in their ability.

Joaquin Caparros, rested many of his starters over the weekend in what Barça should take as a warning regarding how seriously Athletic are approaching this final. He should have Yeste and Orbaiz back after suspensions as well as Llorente who came off the field with thigh muscle contusions against Sporting Gijon in an earlier match. Caparrós who generally uses a 4-4-2 switches to a 4-5-1 against teams like Barça and Madrid with Yeste playing just behind Llorente.

Barça 4-3-3 : Pinto, Dani Alves, Pique, Caceres, Sylvinho, Gudjohnsen, Toure, Busquets, Messi, Bojan, Hleb

Bilbao 4-4-1-1 : Iraizoz, Iraola, Ocio, Amorebieta, Koikili, Lopez, Orbaiz, Martinez, Susaeta, Yeste, Llorente

The difficulty of beating Athletic is perhaps best illustrated by the 1-0 win for Barça in the San Mames earlier in the season. It was a game which Athletic seemed to dominate for long stretches and Barça would have counted themselves lucky to come away with the 3 points. It is notable that Barça used all their tallest players and best headers of the ball in Marquez, Pique, Yaya and Busquets (who came on in the first half) but yet failed to nullify the threat from the Bilbao side. The presence of Llorente had an important part in this as the talented young striker is capable of directing his headers to the players running in from the flanks even while being challenged for the high ball.

Bilbao are likely to concede possession to Barça up to the halfway line and then close down on everything beyond that. The 2 defensive midfielders that is a Bilbao tradition adds to the depth in defense while Yeste will drop deep to help in the distribution with an eye to getting onto Llorente’s layoffs. The long punt upfield to Llorente is likely to Bilbao’s favourite route into Barça’s penalty area.

On set-pieces Bilbao have the advantage by means of their superior strength with the Venezuelan born Basque Amorebieta and the veteran Ocio joining Llorente in the box. The delivery of set-pieces (as well as the chance of a direct goal from a free-kick) is superlative from Bilbao with the right foot of David Lopez and the left of Yeste being equally threatening.

Barça are not going to get much change trying to outmuscle the Bilbao defense and without Henry they do not really have the weapons to attempt as much either. Deception and quickness have to be Barça’s major weapons for this game. A quick transition from defense into offense so as to catch the Bilbao defenders on the back foot with Messi or Bojan running at them will be Barça’s best bet of getting goalside. The discipline and organisation of the Bilbao team means that many a Barça build-up may come up against a stone wall and their best chance of getting a goal will be on the counterattack.

One may also note that the Mestella has never been a favoured hunting ground for Barça in the recent past and the state of the pitch as witnessed in the Valencia game may not be conducive to a smooth flowing passing game. The refree for this game is Medina Cantalejo, a neutral from the Andalusian region who has frequently officiated in the Classico encounters.

Guardiola said “all the squad deserve to play. I know what team I’ll put out, but I’m not going to let it out till match day. If we win, the same as if we win the league, it’ll be a squad effort. You know, I think, even I deserve to get on and play for a while!” Irrespective of whether Guardiola plays or not the task remains a difficult one. Bilbao are very likely to show the sort of discipline backed with physical presence and robust challenges that Barça faced against Chelsea. Perhaps like against Chelsea it may take a single moment of individual brilliance or collective inspiration to decide the tie.

Prediction : FC Barcelona 2 – 1 Athletic Bilbao

kamikaze kontiki


kamikaze kontiki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mast said...

nice preview kamikaze!

kamikaze kontiki said...

thanks Mast, trying like hell to match the benchmark set by barca4life. He has really made the job twice as difficult.

hieifcb said...

nice job dude ^^
soo wht is B4L going to predict? haha
I hope we dnt get injuries today...

sashi said...

nice one kamikaze... hope ur predictions work out welll the same way as B4L's prediction go te other direction :D no offense man! Barca for the cup..

HouseMD said...

Is this the official line-up in your preview?

JR said...

nice preview, but one thing: you are calling this a consolotary prize for Athletic, but I think you are underestimating the importance of this final for them.

sashi said...

HouseMD : its a probable line up... official line up would be out an hour before the match, rite?

kamikaze kontiki said...

It will be the official lineup as soon as they make me the manager. ;-)

hieifcb said...

lol manager of both teams? xD

ej said...

hi ,

i hope bara win tonigh , but i really doubt it .

the players from A-team are really tired and i just pray they wont get injured .

athletic will try to kill us like they did with sevilla , just be prepaired for every player f them running 13-15 km in this game , they will face a very tired players (messi alves pique xavi...

i see the main problem will be , they will have the possesion , they wont try hiding they will go (if there coach is smart) on winning Mf and since barca is not used not having possesion and defending i see us loosing 3-1 :(

the other thing is barca have CL and Laliga options athletic only the copa so they will fight like mad for it !!!

Charles said...

Official line up for Barca;
Alves; Pique; Toure; Puyol

Xavi; Busquets; Keita

Messi; Boyan; Eto'o

There you go!!!

kamikaze kontiki said...

Are you certain of that Charles? It is early for a line-up to be announced.

I have to say nothing could deisapoint me more than seeing Yaya Toure back in defense

ej said...

in bwin before 4 days the quote fo athletic winning was 7.5!!!!!!!!!!!

now its 5.25 :)))

i wish barca win but for me athletic is favort tonight!!!!!!

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