Cup final ideal sendoff for Guardiola
The game, being held at Atlético Madrid’s Estadio Vicente Calderón, will bring Guardiola’s four seasons as Barcelona manager to a close, and gives his phenomenally successful side an opportunity to win a 14th trophy from 20 competitions entered during Guardiola’s time at the helm.
Eager to crash the party are Marcelo Bielsa’s youthful and hard-running Athletic Bilbao team, who have thrilled many neutrals this season with their energetic attacking football.
“Athletic is a team with soul,” said Guardiola. “They demand a lot from you with their style of play. It will be a terribly difficult game. They will attack, and so will we. We have the luck to be finishing with a final against Marcelo's team.”
Guardiola’s departure has been partly overshadowed in Spain by a number of controversies which have little to do with sport. Real Madrid originally withheld the use of its Estadio Santiago Bernabéu as a final venue, to avoid seeing thousands of Barcelona or Athletic fans celebrating on its turf.
Atlético offered their Calderón ground, but a clash with a Coldplay concert meant the game was scheduled for two weeks after the Spanish season ended. This disrupted Spain’s preparations for next month’s Euro 2012 finals, with a total of 12 Athletic and Barcelona players unavailable for the reigning champs’ warm-up friendly against Serbia on Saturday.
“The calendar is the way it is,” said Guardiola. “We have trained so that people remain fit, and we had an opportunity to work on different tactics and recover from injuries. The relaid pitch surface will be more of a handicap. We are delighted to be here.”
More concerning in the build-up have been reminders of some of the less savory parts of Spain’s 20th century history. Supporting groups from both clubs have said they plan to whistle during the pre-game playing of the national anthem, to show they do not consider themselves subjects of the Spanish monarchy.
King Juan Carlos himself will not attend, apparently due to a hip injury picked up hunting elephants in Botswana. His son, Felipe, a self-confessed Atlético fan, will present the trophy afterwards, when more whistling could take place. Madrid regional president Esperanza Aguirre, of the conservative ruling Popular Party (PP), threatened earlier this week that the game could be abandoned if supporters misbehaved.
Amid this atmosphere right-wing extremist groups, including the fascist-inspired La Falange, were given permission to hold a march “in favor of Spanish unity” through Madrid before the game. With 60,000 Catalan and Basque fans arriving in the city to party in designated fans zones (10,000 without tickets), it’s hoped that the only physical confrontations are on the pitch.
Guardiola, who gave no hints as to when he might return to coaching after his upcoming sabbatical, will have more footballing issues to consider as he prepares to name a final starting lineup before handing the reins to current number two Tito Vilanova. First choice defenders Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Daniel Alves are injured, while attacker David Villa admitted defeat in his bid to regain fitness earlier this week.
Better news for the Catalans, as they aim for a 26th Copa del Rey trophy, is the recovery of young midfielder Thiago Alcantara from a stomach complaint. Similarly, Alexis Sánchez, Xavi Hernández and Gerard Piqué are all back to full fitness after missing recent games.
Alves’ replacement will be promising 21-year-old Martín Montoya, while José Manuel Pinto will keep goal as always in Copa games. In attack, Lionel Messi has one last chance to add to his record-breaking 72 goals in all competitions for Barcelona this season.
The Basques who have won 23 Copas to date, ended the regular season looking exhausted. They lost 3-0 to Atlético Madrid in the Europa League final, before slipping to a disappointing tenth place La Liga finish. Two weeks of rest should have recharged their batteries, and the team will be keen to add silverware for the fans it has won this season.
“To be able to play another final so close to the one we lost is an excellent opportunity, and it fills us with optimism and motivation,” said Bielsa. “For me Barcelona, is the best team in the world. There is no new tactic which will allow us to overcome it. Our players must be close to their maximum potential and that way lower Barca’s normal level.”
The former Chile and Argentina national team mangaer - who said he will discuss remaining in Bilbao next season once the game is over - will likely field his full strength squad. Midfielders Ander Iturraspe and Ander Herrera were doubts after missing training earlier in the week with flu, but both have fully recovered.
Fernando Llorente - who terrorized the Barcelona defense during the team’s 2-2 league draw last November - will start with young starlet Iker Muniain and hard-running Óscar de Marcos in attack.
Both teams have made preliminary plans for triumphant homecomings should they win. Barcelona plans to parade the trophy around Camp Nou on Saturday evening, while Athletic’s celebrations would involve the mythical iron ‘Gabarra’ barge floating down Bilbao’s river Nervión for the first time since 1984.
The game is also a last chance for players from both sides to impress Spain boss Vicente del Bosque ahead of Euro 2012. Barca’s Thiago and Pedro Rodríguez could still make the plane, while Athletic right back Ander Iraola will be hopeful to catch del Bosque’s eye.
But most of all it is a chance for the most successful team in Barcelona history to fittingly mark the closing of the Guardiola era. Barcelona and Spain midfielder Andrés Iniesta said on Wednesday he hoped he and his teammates could provide a fond farewell.
“Hopefully we can end the four years of Guardiola with the cup,” said Iniesta. “We have the motivation, in a season where we fell just short in La Liga and the Champions League. This is a chance to leave with a smile.”
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.