Emotions will run high at the Vicente Calderón regardless of the result of Friday’s Copa del Rey final. Barcelona are confident of adding to the Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup that they have already accrued in a season that has been tainted by disappointment in recent weeks. Pep Guardiola's final match in charge could see him land his 14th trophy in his four-year reign, so the players will do their best to send him out on a high.
He faces fellow connoisseur of high pressing, attacking football in Marcelo Bielsa. Both men share a vision of how the beautiful game should be played, and are innovators of tactics and methods. Athletic's long season saw them struggle both physically and mentally against Atlético Madrid in Bucharest, but a two-week break will go some way to recharging their batteries ahead of this one.
A small squad has cost Athletic in recent week: tiredness and injury are difficult to overcome given their high energy philosophy. Iñigo Pérez and Jon Aurtenetxe are the only doubts ahead of the cup final, though. The Basques will probably play a 4-3-3, with Susaeta and Muniain taking up the wings, much as they did in their last final appearance.
Injuries have blighted Barça this season, contributing to their their relinquishment of the title. David Villa's long-term absence and Pedro's on-off problems have led to an over-reliance on Lionel Messi for goals. The major quandary for this match though will be at the rear, due to recent injuries to Carlos Puyol and Dani Alves, along with the unfortunate retirement of Éric Abidal. A back three is possible, but its unsuccessful deployment in games against Chelsea and Real Madrid will probably lead to Martín Montoya starting at right-back in a four man defence. Alexis Sánchez is doubtful, so Iniesta is likely to start on the wing with Cesc Fàbregas occupying a midfield berth.
Athletic appear to have run out of steam, with no wins in the previous five games. Despite this, the players are certainly upbeat: Ander Herrera has spoken of the "great intensity" with which the team will play with, whilst Markel Susaeta told AS newspaper "the team is now very strong and hungry”. The Catalans, meanwhile, have bounced back well after the disappointments that derailed their league and European campaigns, with three wins and a draw, and 17 goals in four games. This is their last chance to remind the world how good this era really has been.
Main Man: Athletic Bilbao
At the start of this season, few would have envisaged midfielder Javi Martínez as a defender. But his new manager did. The Estella-born player had shown versatility in the middle of the park in previous years; his ability to sit in front of the defence spraying balls out to the wings complemented by his energetic box-to-box runs. His tactical awareness and mobility have also helped his seamless transition to centre-back. His height and sturdy frame mean there are fewer question marks over his use in this position than there are over his opponent Javier Mascherano.
Main Man: Barcelona
The team might have become a little Messi-dependent in recent months, but it would be difficult for any side not to be: the little Argentinean maestro has scored an incredible 210 goals in 218 matches under Pep Guardiola. Few would bet against him adding to that tally here. His debt of gratitude was evident to his boss as he put four past local rivals Espanyol, while signals to the bench and an affectionate embrace showed the mutual respect and admiration they hold for one another.
Recent Head to Head
The two previous encounters this season saw a draw at San Mamés and a win for Barça at the Camp Nou. The final itself is a repeat of 2009, when Barcelona romped to a 4-1 win. With the evolution of Athletic’s style, however, this encounter should be far more tight.
Fernando Llorente was outshone in Romania by Radamel Falcao, but he has five goals in the Copa del Rey and is 3.60 to add another. With Barça susceptible to set-pieces, you can get great odds on Javi Martínez (38.00) or Fernando Amorebieta (46.00) to open the scoring. When assessing scorers from Guardiola's Barcelona in finals gone by, a couple of players feature consistently. Little Lionel has obviously grabbed more than his fair share in defining games, and he is 1.45 to score at any time and 2.40 to either score first or last. In the first goal market, Pedro will be looking to make amends for a poor season at 5.25, and play-making master Xavi can be found at 8.25.
It will be a fast-paced, tightly contested game from the start. The perfect send off for Pep could well be written in the stars. Over 3.5 goals at 1.95 offers slightly better value than the Barcelona win at 1.30.