Spain’s new-look Copa scores with upsets of big clubs
All he could do was grab the shirt of Athletic Bilbao striker Iñaki Williams and hang on. Williams, who had already blown past the veteran center back, dragged the prone player on his belly for several seconds before finally coming down.
Williams was stopped that time, barely, but Barcelona couldn’t stop him in injury time, when he scored a glancing header at San Mamés Stadium to send Bilbao into the Copa del Rey semifinals.
The two Basque Country teams join Granada and second-division club Mirandés in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey. Bilbao was paired with Granada on Friday, while Sociedad drew Mirandés. That sets up the possibility of an all-Basque final between Bilbao and Sociedad — one of the fiercest rivalries in Spanish soccer.
“My goal is for all our fans, for the team, for how we have been playing in this cup. We have never stopped believing,” Williams told Cadena SER after the match.
Williams’ performance, his display of speed, power, and goal-scoring, captured the extra motivation that the switch from two-leg to single match rounds has given smaller clubs in the cup competition.
“The format has changed and playing just one match has made it easier to reach the final,” Williams said. “We know how tough it is to win a Spanish league game against teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, and that our chance is in the Copa del Rey.”
Bilbao has also had its scares against smaller opponents. It needed penalty shootouts to advance against second-division clubs in the two previous rounds.
Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales has revamped the two major competitions under the federation’s direct control. The federation expanded the Spanish Super Cup from two to four teams, moved it to mid-season, and staged it abroad in Saudi Arabia. That decision was criticized because of the Middle Eastern kingdom’s poor record on human rights.
The transformation of the Copa del Rey, however, has earned rave reviews from fans and players, above all from the mid-level and small clubs which now have a much better chance to pull off an upset.
Only the semifinals will be played over two legs.
“We had the feeling that we had to do something for those modest clubs, something that would fill the competition with surprises and permit every club to dream,” Rubiales said at Friday’s draw.
It’s the first time in a decade that neither Barcelona nor Madrid made it to the last four. Barcelona made the final the last six years in a row, winning four. The last time a team other than Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia or Atlético Madrid won the cup was when Espanyol won it in 2006.
Bilbao, which only fields players born in the Basque Country region and neighboring areas of northern Spain, has traditionally excelled in the Copa del Rey. It’s 23 titles are second only to Barcelona’s 30, but Bilbao hasn’t won the competition since 1984. It has reached and lost four finals since then.
“Moments like today are what every boy in an Athletic shirt dreams of,” Williams said. “We are the kings of the Copa, along with Barca.”
Sociedad upset Madrid by roaring to a 4-1 lead and then holding off the hosts in their comeback attempt at the Santiago Bernabeu. Sociedad got two quality goals from Aleksander Isak to lead the way as its talented bunch of midfielders and forwards undid Madrid.
“Our fans deserve this prize. We haven’t been to the semifinals in 32 years,” Sociedad coach Imanol Aguacil said. “You can imagine how proud we feel.”
Granada toppled defending champion Valencia 2-1 on Tuesday with former Valencia striker Roberto Soldado scoring two goals, including an injury-time penalty.
Mirandés has had the most impressive run of all.
Mirandés also made a memorable cup run in 2011-12, beating Villarreal, Racing Santander and Espanyol before falling to Bilbao in the semifinals.
“We are on cloud nine,” Mirandés coach Andoni Iraola, a former Bilbao player, said Tuesday. “This is something to remember for a lifetime.”