They may be languishing in mid-table in the Liga, but Athletic Club Bilbao's love affair with the Copa del Rey goes on after a "magnificent display" at home against Sevilla FC set up a final date with FC Barcelona in Valencia.
Los Leones were 2-1 down from the first leg but a vociferous 40,000 capacity crowd at San Mamés unsettled the visitors and goals from Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente and Gaizka Toquero sealed an impressive turnaround. "The atmosphere was magnificent," said Athletic boss Joaquín Caparrós, who coached Sevilla between 2000 and 2005. "Maybe our first goal was slightly fortunate but we pushed them hard thereafter and managed a couple more. In the second half we really used our heads and in the end the players got their reward. The entire region has been building up to this for the last month – everyone was involved."
Athletic have a long association with the Copa del Rey having claimed the trophy 23 times, though never since 1984. It is a record second only to Barcelona's, their final opponents 25 years ago. The Catalan club will also stand in the way on 13 May in Valencia after a 3-1 aggregate triumph over RCD Mallorca secured Barça's shot at a 25th cup crown. The sides' league standings suggest a bigger gulf in quality, but Caparrós believes the prospect of the Mestalla showpiece can boost his charges as they look to improve on eleventh place. "The players will get a huge lift from this," he said. "We need to get the ten or eleven points we feel we still need in the league. As for the final, we have to be ambitious and go into the game against a very talented Barcelona team believing we can win."
Caparrós and company will not have to wait long for an opportunity to size up the opposition: they travel to Camp Nou in the Liga on Saturday. Barça's winless run stretched to five games last night, but the 1-1 draw at Mallorca was ultimately enough and coach Josep Guardiola reckons the Spanish leaders may have turned a corner. "The players recovered their intensity and I saw things that had been missing from the team recently," he said, after seeing his men fall behind and concede a penalty before Lionel Messi's late equaliser. "We've achieved something very positive that will help strengthen us. The final will be a wonderful occasion – reward for all the effort we've put in this season."
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