What: Copa del Rey Final
Who: Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona
When: Friday 25th May, 2012, at 21:00 UK time
Where: Vicente Calderon, Madrid, Spain

Relishing the Challenge

Only a win against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final would prevent Athletic Bilbao’s season from turning into huge disappointment. Touted at one point as one of Europe’s best emerging side as a result of eye-catching displays in the Europa League, the team have been in decline in recent months. Whether that is due to the physical demands coach Marcelo Bielsa places on his squad is open to debate, but what is for certain is that the Basque outfit still have a chance of glory here.

Los Leones have already secured Europa League participation for next season, but a potential 24th Copa del Rey accolade would see them grab an automatic start in the tournament’s group stage. That, combined with silverware of course, leaves much for Athletic Bilbao to play for.

It is little surprise therefore that, according to midfielder Ander Herrera, the side have been intensely put through their paces by their Argentine boss. “He [Bielsa] is putting an intense program together. It is the game of his life. For him, playing a final against the best team in the world and wining it is a realistic idea, and he is transmitting that to us", revealed the ex-Real Sociedad man.

Sporting the same mentality of tiki-taka football as Barcelona, the dual between the two sides will be exciting at the very least. Two teams that are not historically the best of friends, defeating Josep Guardiola’s men in his last game in charge is a prospect to savour for the Basques.

The End

25th May will hold a different meaning for Barcelona, as the side prepare to bid farewell to their most successful coach ever. After four years of utter success, Guardiola’s battery has been effectively drained. Here his players will have the chance to add a 14th trophy into their-already illustrious cabinet, and ensure that the man who made them the best side in the world packs his bags in a festive mood. With Tito Vilanova set to take charge, a new era is about to unfold at the club.

Unable to clinch the league title or Champions League trophy – competitions they were heavy favourites to secure – Barcelona turn their attention to the Copa del Rey prize. However, the Blaugrana know that their opponents, led by Guardiola’s mentor himself Marcelo Bielsa, will be a tough nut to crack, even taking into account their recent misfortunes.

And this is a fact of which Cesc Fabregas is well aware, even if he stresses his side’s hunger for success remains. “I’m sure they are not more motivated than we are. Our hunger for victory and our excitement hasn’t run out”, declared the former Arsenal captain. “We’re going to play against a spectacular team that we admire. They have hope, they’re eager and they always go forward.”

The game will provide a further opportunity for Lionel Messi to cement his goal record this season. The forward has already managed 74 strikes this term, a feat that will be impossible to break in the near future.

Recent form

Athletic Bilbao:
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Getafe (05/05; La Liga)
Atletico Madrid 3-0 Athletic Bilbao (09/05; La Liga)
Levante 3-0 Athletic Bilbao (13/05; La Liga)

Barcelona 4-1 Malaga (02/05; La Liga)
Barcelona 4-0 Espanyol (05/05; La Liga)
Real Betis 2-2 Barcelona (12/05; La Liga)

Key absences

Athletic Bilbao: Inigo Perez; Igor Martinez; Aitor Ocio; Xabier Castillo

Barcelona: Jose Manuel Pinto; Carles Puyol; Eric Abidal; Andreu Fontas; David Villa; Daniel Alves

Players to watch

Athletic Bilbao – Iker Muniain: The young starlet can further cement his spot as one of Europe’s most talented up and coming prospects with a good showing here. Super quick, he is capable of causing extreme damage in the final third and must to be closely monitored by the Blaugrana defence.

Barcelona – Gerard Pique: With Carles Puyol missing through injury, Pique is expected to get the nod next to Javier Mascherano in the centre of the Barcelona defence. The former Manchester United man has had a season to forget after losing his starting spot, but a solid display here could be a turning point.

Match Prediction

This game promises goals and lots of them as both teams have a penchant for attacking football. Barcelona are missing some key names such as Puyol and Alves, with the former ruled out of Euro 2012 altogether. Yet the Catalan giants still have enough quality in their ranks to triumph over Athletic Bilbao, as they prepare to say “Adeu” to their coach. Athletic Bilbao 1-3 Barcelona.

Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona is a fitting Copa del Rey final. Who do you think will win? Make sure you visit OLBG for tips and to compare the current odds and betting markets available at all the important bookmakers.