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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat ends hopes of silverware – but it isn’t all bad

There are few grounds in Spain where you feel like you are already 1-0 down before you even take to the field. San Mames is one of them.

An hour before the match, Athletic Bilbao’s fans had flooded the streets around the stadium, lining their team’s route into the venue with red flares.

The home side came into their meeting with Barcelona in very good form and there was a spectacular atmosphere to match. The Copa del Rey is their favourite competition — they have won it 23 times, only behind Barca’s 31. The match-up looked like an early final, and the challenge for Xavi’s group was never going to be easy.

Barca, after a period of low confidence, have regained something of their self-esteem, especially since Sunday’s important La Liga win at Real Betis. Victory against Athletic, an in-form opponent at such a difficult ground, might have provided Xavi with evidence of the definitive ‘click’ he has been looking for from his side.

Barca did not win, and defeat brings damage for several reasons, but there were positives to take away.

Just a few weeks after losing the Supercopa de Espana final, Xavi’s side are now eliminated from another competition. Barca might view the Copa del Rey as the least relevant trophy of the season after the Supercopa, but it is a trophy nonetheless.

With La Liga rivals Real Madrid and Girona already knocked out, it was likely the most attainable title left for them this season, too. No one expects Barca to come back and defend their league crown this season, and winning the Champions League seems like a dream.

Wednesday night’s defeat leaves Xavi with more work to do in defending his project. For weeks, he has based his arguments on a very results-oriented discourse. First, there were hopes for the Supercopa because last season’s title in Saudi Arabia provided a key turning point. Those hopes ended in a 4-1 demolition by Madrid. Then there was the repeated message that Barca were alive in all major competitions, still technically candidates for the treble.

Xavi, whose position has come under real scrutiny of late, told a press conference last week that he was still Barca coach because he had “fulfilled the objectives”. But he added: “If we don’t win and we don’t win titles, there will be consequences, I’ve said that from day one. I will never be a problem for Barca.”

Xavi gives instructions to Hector Fort (Diego Souto/Getty Images)

When Barca were used to winning La Liga and Champions League titles, fans used to refer to the Copa del Rey as a ‘chupito’ (a shot, as in one you drink). It was seen as an enjoyable way of rounding off a season. Now, the cup is Barca’s likeliest hope for a title, and this year’s opportunity has been lost.

The saving grace was that — in contrast with several other recent matches — Barca’s performance in Bilbao was not one to be ashamed of.

They followed on their positive display at Betis by reminding us they do know what it means to compete, and this against a very physical opponent that plays one of the best games in Spain (Athletic are only three points behind Barca in the table in fifth, having played one game more).

Barca reacted well to going behind early on, with Gorka Guruzeta opening the scoring inside the first 60 seconds after a mistake in possession by Lamine Yamal. It was the ninth time this season Barca had conceded in a game’s first 20 minutes, but, unlike on other occasions, the team was not overcome by anxiety.

They knew how to control the tempo of the game, they were intense in their pressure when they didn’t have the ball and, with patience and good play, the goals came. First, there was Robert Lewandowski’s rebound, scored after Ferran Torres’ positive work. Then came Yamal’s artistry to put Barca 2-1 up, a strike that reminded the most optimistic among us of Lionel Messi.

Another positive should be taken from the bravery of Xavi’s selection.

Criticised earlier this season for often not replacing Lewandowski, Xavi did take him off again here. Leaving Yamal on the pitch, he replaced Lewandowski instead when Joao Felix came on.

“When things don’t work out, you have to double your commitment to the youth,” Xavi said in October 2023. And so he did.

When Alejandro Balde was injured, on came 17-year-old Hector Fort. He had a great game, playing like a veteran in a tough match, winning several key battles with Nico Williams on the wing.

Pau Cubarsi entered the pitch when Andreas Christensen was withdrawn and again showed his quality — two days after his 17th birthday, three days after excelling in his full senior debut at Betis. Marc Guiu, the centre-forward who scored the winning goal at home to Athletic in La Liga in October, now 18, also came on.

“There is a very good project with a very good generation at the club, that’s why we give these youngsters a chance,” Xavi said in his post-match press conference. “There is a very good potential for Barca to compete, whether I’m the coach or not.”

When the final whistle went, Yamal’s face was long. Despite scoring one of the best goals of Barca’s season, he had missed two clear chances that could have prevented extra time, the last one after having rounded the goalkeeper.

A few yards further on was Fort, lying with cramps on the turf. Inaki Williams came over to console and congratulate him, asking to swap jerseys.

The stands of San Mames trembled after Williams, who had rushed back from the Africa Cup of Nations to play after Ghana’s elimination, only landing on Wednesday morning, put Athletic 3-2 up in extra time. The same happened when his brother Nico sealed their 4-2 win in the 121st minute.

With the game ended, and with the stadium’s hustle and bustle still ringing in your ears, there was disappointment at Barca being knocked out after competing so hard — but with little green shoots appearing of what the new generation promises.

(Top photo: Diego Souto/Getty Images)

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