Just over 25 years have passed since Endika Guarrotxena’s goal earned Athletic a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the 1984 final – the last trophy lifted by the Basque team who were Spanish double winners that season. With the city of Bilbao now overcome by Copa del Rey fever, the pressure is on Athletic to deliver a 25th cup success.
“The competition that best sums this club up is the Copa del Rey,” Athletic coach Joaquín Caparrós said after 18,000 supporters attended the squad’s final training session at San Mamés before departing for Valencia. “The people want this trophy, we can feel it, and it increases our desire to win. Along with Barça, we’re the club that has won this tournament most. Victory would mean so much after all the work we’ve put in.”
Standing in front of the men in red and white – who are without injured midfielder Igor Gabilondo – are a Barcelona side ten places better off in the Liga and targeting their first silverware of the campaign. Caparrós recognises the challenge posed by the champions-elect and UEFA Champions League finalists.
“Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world in both individual ability and collective strength,” said the former Sevilla FC boss. “Their hunger to win trophies runs through the entire team. We know it’s going to be tough because Barcelona are Barcelona and if we’re not up for the task we can’t win. We have to be strong as a unit and believe in ourselves.”
Playing at the home of Valencia CF may prove a good omen for Barcelona, whose last Spanish Cup triumph – their 24th – came against RCD Mallorca at the Mestalla eleven years ago. Defender Carles Puyol remembers it well. “I was only 20 and watched the game in a flat I shared with other youth-team players,” he said, adding of Wednesday’s final: “League form doesn’t count in a cup final. Anything can happen in a one-off match like against Athletic.”
Missing the injured Andrés Iniesta, Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez and the suspended Eric Abidal, captain Puyol believes the Catalans will need to draw on their resources for what he calls “one of the biggest games of the year”. “They’ll come at us very strongly so we have to make sure we do everything well and try to better them in every department.”