The two most successful sides in Copa del Rey history will meet in May's decider. Will it be the perfect pre-UEFA Champions League final warm-up for FC Barcelona?
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No team gets near Real Madrid CF's haul of 32 Liga and ten UEFA Champions League titles, but there is one competition they have never quite managed to dominate: the Copa del Rey.
On Wednesday evening FC Barcelona and Athletic Club negotiated their semi-final second legs meaning that, on 30 May, Spain's two most successful cup sides will meet in the 111th Copa del Rey final. Barcelona have won the competition 26 times, Athletic 23 (with Madrid on 20 from a record 39 appearances in the decider) and this season's showpiece represents something very different for either club.
Quietly, the Catalans have manoeuvred themselves into a position to launch a concerted attack in the last three months of 2014/15. They have not been more than four points off top spot in the Liga all term, and the gap to Madrid is down to two, while a 2-1 victory at Manchester City FC leaves them ideally placed to reach the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Indeed, Barcelona have won 14 of their last 15 games.
The Copa del Rey is also an opportunity for Luis Enrique to cut his teeth in his first cup final as a coach – perfect preparation for a possible UEFA Champions League decider in Berlin seven days later. The 44-year-old, a cup winner three times as a player with Barça and Madrid, has real cause for optimism. "This is very positive and it's great we're in the final," he said after completing a 6-2 aggregate triumph over Villarreal CF. "Now we have to win it."
The Blaugrana have history on their side. In seven previous final tussles with Athletic they have won five, including three-goal successes in the last two, in 2009 and 2012. Gerard Piqué is guarded, though. "Athletic have always done well in the cup and even though they are not doing as well as usual in the league, they are very difficult opponents," he warned.
For Athletic – 3-1 aggregate victors over RCD Espanyol – the final provides hope of redemption amid a halting 2014/15. Out of the UEFA Champions League, out of the UEFA Europa League, they are not exactly tearing up trees in the Liga either, lying a disappointing tenth with perhaps only eighth a realistic end-of-season target. Coach Ernesto Valverde is not curbing his enthusiasm, though, hoping the May date with Barça can belatedly save Athletic's campaign.
"Getting to a final brings a lot of hope to our fans, it's a stimulus and we hope it helps us become more competitive in the league," said Valverde. "Barcelona will obviously be favourites, they have great fire power and experience. But we will play to our strengths as best as we can and it's a one-off game: anything can happen."
Athletic have not picked up the Copa del Rey since 1984. Their opponents that day? Barcelona, of course.