Re-Emerging Athletic Bilbao Have Chance to Spoil Barcelona's Treble Trophy Chase

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2015

Barcelona's Luis Suarez of Uruguay, right, duels for the ball during their La Liga soccer match between Athletic Bilbao and FC Barcelona, at San Mames stadium in Bilbao, northern Spain, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

With the end of the 2014-15 Liga season in Spain came a celebration of bittersweet emotion at Camp Nou, as Barcelona picked up the league title but also bid farewell to one of the greatest and most influential modern footballers in Xavi Hernandez.

Of course, the World Cup-winning central midfielder and his team-mates still have two potential games—which could yield two trophies—to play, but the goodbyes, the tears and the plaudits came after the title was wrapped up and the league season came to an end. Saturday, though, sees Barcelona take to the field once more on home soil, as their own ground hosts the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, the second leg of an attempted trophy treble for the Catalan club.

Looking at the final Liga table standings, it looks a heavily lopsided final: Six places and 39 points separated the two teams. To add further context, Athletic scored an average of 1.1 goals per game while Barca managed 2.9. The Basque side conceded at almost the same rate as they scored, finishing with a goal difference of +1. The Catalans, meanwhile, had the best defensive record in the league and a goal difference of +89.

Even the summer spending reveals a gulf that is separated by an order of magnitude. Athletic, with their self-limited available talent pool, signed just one player—Borja Viguera for less than £1 million—while Barcelona prepared for a transfer ban by splashing more than £130 million on the likes of Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Claudio Bravo.

However, the gap between the sides need not be as large as it initially looks.

Athletic Bilbao's season was almost over before it had even begun this year; after beating Napoli in a UEFA Champions League qualifier to reach the group stage, they utterly collapsed. Their first eight Liga games of the season yielded a single victory, at home to Levante, as everything that could go wrong for the Basque team did. Just one point was gained from the first four group-stage matches in Europe, which included a loss away to BATE Borisov, while the likes of Eibar, Granada and Almeria took a point or better off Athletic in the league.

BORISOV,BELARUS - SEPTEMBER 30: Nikolai Signevich of Bate Borisov (Blue Strip) in action during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between Bate Borisov and Athletic Bilbao at the Borisov Arena on September 30, 2014 in Borisov, Belarus. (Photo by Maxi
EuroFootball/Getty Images

From the force of 2013-14, which had sealed fourth place in La Liga, to the suffering side of October and November, it was tough to pinpoint what had gone wrong at San Mames. Yes, they had lost Ander Herrera, but the midfield triumvirate of Ander Iturraspe, Mikel Rico and Benat looked able to cope with the demands in terms of style and consistency. The early-season form of Iturraspe in particular was immensely impressive, driving the team forward from deep, winning and distributing the ball with class and looking to join up with Aritz Aduriz in attack.

The same couldn't be said for everyone, however. Aymeric Laporte is a tremendous young centre-back, but he struggled early on in the year. Wide threats Ibai Gomez and Markel Susaeta have never really found consistency this term, and there were a few mistakes from usually reliable goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz too.

Manager Ernesto Valverde had made the team a machine last year, yet his tinkering and alterations—largely within the same system—this time around were having no initial impact and Athletic languished bottom of the table in mid-October. Lest we forget, this is the same manager who was widely acknowledged to be a consideration, at the very least, for Barcelona when their managerial position became available last summer. Valverde continued his rotations, sought the changes to make the difference and eventually saw his side begin to turn the tide.

Barcelona have won massive praise for their run of form: Twenty-nine wins from 33 games in all competitions since early January. Athletic, however, started from so far down the table that their own tremendous form seems almost unnoticed: Just three defeats in 19 Liga games since the same period, with two of those against Sevilla and Barcelona themselves.

Centre-back Xabier Etxeita has been one of the big beneficiaries of the team switches, holding down his spot with a series of commanding and reliable displays at the back, while Mikel San Jose has re-established himself as first choice further forward than usual as a holding midfielder. Andoni Iraola and Mikel Rico have also been priceless in more than one role as Bilbao recovered form, confidence and league position.

In addition, attacking midfielder Inaki Williams has also made the breakthrough. His rangy, powerful runs on the counter-attack give Athletic a very different approach at times, with everything still centred around Aritz Aduriz in attack. Now 34, he seems to be getting better with age. The system suits him entirely, and there is a notable drop-off in quality and effectiveness in the Athletic attack when he is absent.

This season, Aduriz finished as La Liga's top-scoring Spaniard (or Spain-eligible player) with 18 goals. In previous years, that accolade has gone to Diego Costa (27 goals), Alvaro Negredo (25) and Roberto Soldado (17).

Systemic or not, Valverde has his team able to play aggressively, quickly and effectively at times. The 1-0 win over Real Madrid was the perfect example of this and will give the Basque team hope of springing an upset in the Copa del Rey final too. The injury to Iker Muniain, however, robs them of one of their more unpredictable attacking threats, though he hadn't been at his very best this term.

BILBAO, SPAIN - MARCH 07:  Aritz Aduriz of Athletic Club celebrates after scoring the first goal during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on March 7, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serran
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Not since 1984 have Athletic won a major trophy; that year, they won three.

Three years ago they finished runners-up in this very competition, as well as in the Europa League. Their vanquishers in the Copa del Rey were, of course, Barcelona.

Athletic are desperate to end that long streak without a trophy, but the Catalans have their own agenda, with Luis Enrique seeking to match Pep Guardiola's debut treble haul and Xavi looking to boost his trophy cabinet before he moves on.

There will be no sentiment from Enrique, though; Barcelona fielded a full-strength side in the competition against Villarreal and Atletico Madrid in the past two rounds, and Xavi started in none of the games. In fact, he has played just 41 mins in the competition this season, per Transfermarkt.

23 - Xavi has won 23 titles with Barcelona. He needs just one more to become the most decorated player in Spanish football history. Elected

— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 21, 2015

The strength of La Liga means any of the top eight or so are capable of pushing for European places and silverware, with just consistency issues—squad depth for some, mentality for others or just that lacking extra bit of quality when it matters most—sorting the top four from the rest. Those periods of downtime in a team's form can hammer seasonal objectives if they come during the second half of the year—see Villarreal this season for example—but Athletic's came right at the beginning of the campaign.

Since then, it has all been one way for them, and they have hit their peak run of the campaign at the perfect time to try and end the season with silverware.

Barcelona will be favourites, and rightly so, but this Copa del Rey final isn't quite as clear-cut as it might initially seem; Athletic proved last year they are a Champions League-worthy team, and they'll be out to demonstrate that once again on Saturday.

 

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