FC Barcelona is our opponentAthletic Club have earned their place in the King’s Cup final…
FC Barcelona is our opponent
Athletic Club have earned their place in the King’s Cup final (3-0, Javi Martinez, Llorente, Toquero) on yet another magical night on which the support from San Mamés has been the ideal thrust to the team’s game. It will be its 36th appearance and the opportunity to win number 25 a quarter century after the last final, disputed in the 84/85 season in Madrid. Rojiblanca elation, in capital letters, that is already overflowing in thousands of streets and squares and far-away places, too.
The lion was too much a lion and did honours to the records held with the healthy intention of extending the list of achievements: the highest score in a Copa match: Athletic Club 12-Celta 1 (1946- 47 season), the player with most Copa finals won (Gainza, with seven), the player with the most Copa finals played (Gainza and Jose Mari Belauste with 9) and the highest goal scorer in the history of the Copa, Zarra with 81. Gainza also holds the record for highest scorer in a single Copa match, eight of the twelve against Celta, previously mentioned, and player with the most Copa matches played: 99.
Athletic Club dominated the game from head to tail. Fresh, concentrated, convinced and with clear ideas when it came to pressuring; it’s been the only one of the two contenders that bought tickets to be in the final. If we also add the impressive display of loyalty, desire and reliability of the fans that packed San Mamés and of those that cheered and supported before and during the match from outside, the result has been better than imagined. The goose bumps and adrenalin have been a constant on the bus that transferred the team from the Hotel Carlton to San Mamés, what was lived and felt in La Catedral is difficult to describe and the laughter mixed with tears in the changing room by the direct and indirect celebs are sensations that make an impression. Besides, this time it’s been for the best; for the very best.
On this occasion we the Club, its players, technical staff and fans have received what we deserved because we’ve earned it, each one from their own sphere of action. The Copa finals and its circumstances will no longer be, 24 years later, a story told by our grandparents, in which stories of victories against Real Madrid on their own field of Chamartín were retold generation after generation; of sold mattresses in order to go to the final; karate after Maradona didn’t know how to digest, Schuster and company, the goal by Endika; or controls in the Madrilenian mountain range to top off a bad final that the ‘manito’ Hugo Sanchez swiped from us. History will renew itself on the lips of the new generations on 13 May thanks to, as a point reference, what was achieved today against a team with Sevilla’s potential. And they will be able to tell them in full detail, since technology is taking giant steps, what the Athletic feeling is, in capital letters.
If disputing a final is little prize, and if things in the Liga continue on course with regards to FC Barcelona, that is, that they finish the Liga in at least third place, Athletic Club, without even having disputed the final, could count on a seat in the rejuvenated UEFA Cup. A clean-up that last year made when the European body decide to do away with the Intertoto. Therefore, we have two months ahead of us full of renewed excitement before heading to Valencia or wherever it’s decided.
And to do this the opponent has not been ‘a priori’ the easiest. It’s a compact rival with proven experience in domestic and continental competitions, especially in two legged format. An enemy difficult to beat, not in vain is it the team with the least goals conceded in Primera Division and the one that has gone the longest without conceding a goal in the Liga. A complicated opponent because we didn’t know how a young group would respond to the tons of pressure and exhilaration cocktails we’ve ingested, particularly in the last month. Especially considering that the greater deceptions when the team was taking off came in the last two semi-finals of this decade. Nevertheless, Athletic Club has demonstrated that it knows how to compete and be competitive, that the philosophy by which it is characterized carries difficulties well known by everyone, but that must not be taken as a burden but instead as an agglutinating and dynamising element. Simply put, working well gets things accomplished.
The bet, as we said on Saturday, was risky and as occurred in Gijon, it turned out well because the team easily managed after choosing to give the most rest to the chosen players and that has also been part of the success, although, as the coach pointed out in the press room, the whole squad would love to have been direct participants of the feat.
With the cited precedents, Athletic Club set the qualifying round on track in no time at all. Jiménez, Sevilla’s coach, indicated in press conference that he does not think the support of San Mamés has had a negative influence in the game unfolded by his team, but, it is undeniable that what was lived, for example, during the warm-ups, singing the anthem and throughout the whole encounter, turned the atmosphere into an impressive show that made even the most spirited Sevilla fans lose their voices, with whom the fans even exchanged chants at the end of the match; a unequivocal sign of the good atmosphere that reigned in the stadium.
And if that were not enough, the start of the match has been pessimist-proof. Sevilla saw from that point the difficulty to control the pace of the game and, although it lined-up eleven strong and significant players, Athletic bit more and with better results. In the minute 4, David Lopez shot a free-kick into the area, Llorente passed with a header and Javi Martinez, who came from behind, finished off against Palop’s body, but the rebound did not escape him. Total madness, only the first episode and Athletic was already in the final.
Still not satisfied, the lion that Del Nido metaphorically predicted was going to be devoured in its integrity, from mane to tail to be more exact, was hungry and did not let Sevilla free; instead it kept tearing them to pieces with its teeth. Immediately afterwards two of the three penalty plays demanded during the match took place. The third was requested by Luis Fabiano in the second half, but just as occurred with Toquero’s it gave the impression of being exaggerated by the participants on the fall. Llorente, as usually happens, was held by his jersey in the minute 12. Mejuto, at the hand of tidy European style arbitration and little implicated in high competition clashes, did not indicate anything in any of the plays. Shortly after, the minute 13, Orbaiz found himself with little angle on the one-on-one with Palop, and the keeper deflected.
And, as Athletic is learning, they took the following minutes more calmly, but without leaving room for manoeuvring to a Sevilla that wanted to, but couldn’t. Athletic conveniently combined long balls to Toquero and Llorente with high balls in the wings or changes of direction to assess its opponent. Predictable soccer, perhaps, but executed well and that choked a Sevilla that was going to eat the whole lion and couldn’t find the way to sink its tooth into it. Besides, Athletic had the speed which Sevilla, with their wings negated, lacked.
Athletic continued doing its thing to finish the first half, and how. In the minute 32, Javi Martinez headed a centre high from the right, but hit point blank one hundred and twenty seconds later. Toquero lost his marker down the right and finished with a centre into the area cleared towards the left wing where Yeste stopped, looked and crossed for Llorente to unquestionably head in the 2-0 although it touched Palop. Double the joy and substitution that Jiménez had already prepared: Luis Fabiano in for Fazio changing Renato to the double pivot. In vain, though. It was logical and was registered that the Liga match could not compare with the Copa and, would you believe it, if on Saturday it was Kanouté who took all the honours so as to shatter the Basques’ dreams, a player that left San Mamés four days ago with a bitter aftertaste, Gaizka Toquero, saw his Stakhanovite work compensated with his first goal as a rojiblanco in a swanky appointment.
Llorente, present in all three goals, came up with a good play in the edge of the area and his assistance left Toquero alone with Palop and this time the one-on-one did end up in goal. And between metaphor and metaphor, Athletic’s followers, just as intense as piercing, resorted to synonyms to satisfy the sevillista president’s hunger, a circumstance he accepted with sportsmanship. Sevilla was no more than a rag for the lion and its attempt in the first half and almost only shot with certain danger in the goalmouth during the whole match is resumed in a shot on goal by Navas which Iraizoz easily saved. Our keeper wore a black uniform as tribute to the mythical Jose Angel Iribar, except for the rojiblanca socks because of the coincidence with Sevilla, and on his boots, in addition to the number 1, he also had Chopo’s birth date, 1 March 1943; quite a detail.
In second half, Athletic Club read the match perfectly and didn’t throw the great work done in the first overboard. Curiously, the edginess has been greater in the stands as the minutes passed, perhaps because the final was at our fingertips and because, in view of the impossibility of extra time, a goal by a powerful rival put the qualification on the brinks. Jiménez brought out the most offensive players he had left, only forced by the absurd regulation that limits to sixteen the number of players summoned in the Copa. Capel substituted Adriano, with no other change than this spectacular player’s ability to penetrate. Just in case, Athletic came in well position and, with somewhat more room and precipitation ponds, it’s been able to make Palop work in the minute 58 by means of Orbaiz, the 66th when Toquero penetrated and the 84th when his substitute faced off against Palop. In addition, Gurpegi replaced an exhausted Javi Martinez and Gabilondo did so for David Lopez.
Without concealing when it came to moving the ball and with a good defence in set plays, Athletic left Sevilla’s danger list in a mere anecdote: a Chilean by Renato in the 60th, parried off by Ocio, and a header to the post in the 76th. Despite it all, on the field nobody gave credit and the extended shade of the visitor’s quality threatened in San Mamés, making reference to ‘it isn’t over ’til the fat lady sings’.
In the end, Athletic Club proudly reached the final, by playing well and earning every bit of it. Celebrations on the field, the stands, the hotel, all throughout Bilbao and the excitement and hope swells even beyond Biscay. And it’s just that our Athletic turned what appeared to be a daydream into reality. We deserved it. Congratulations to the red-and-white family for their contribution.
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