BARCELONA, Spain — When Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao face off on Saturday, they will be playing for more than the Copa del Rey trophy.
Bilbao wants to remove the sting of losing the delayed final of the 2020 Copa del Rey played earlier this month against Real Sociedad at the same La Cartuja stadium in Seville.
Barcelona needs to show Lionel Messi that this team, which coach Ronald Koeman has done his best to rejuvenate with younger players, can get back to winning titles right now as the Argentine mulls his future.
Messi has remained silent on his plans come this summer when his contract expires since he stunned the club in August by saying that he wanted out following its first season without a trophy since 2008.
Koeman now has his team in the thick of the Spanish league title race, but the former Barcelona defender knows that the club’s debts and turnover in its executive board don’t exempt him from bringing home trophies.
“I am the first one who knows where I am,” Koeman said Friday. “I am at a great club like Barça where you have to win regardless of the changes we are making and the economic situation of the club. Tomorrow we have a final and we have to win it, the rest does not matter.”
Barcelona is facing an adversary that while less talented has shown it has the weapons and, above all, the tenacity to beat it in a cup competition.
When the two teams met in January, what looked like the prelude to a title celebration turned into a nightmare for Messi.
Barcelona was leading the Spanish Super Cup final until Bilbao stuck a 90th-minute equalizer and went on to prevail 3-2 in extra time through Iñaki Williams' winner. In frustration, Messi lashed out at an opponent and earned himself his first career red card for Barcelona.
Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen hopes that painful loss can serve his team well on Saturday.
“It is good to live moments like we did in the Super Cup,” the German said. “Let’s hope that the experience will give us good feelings tomorrow so that we can be prepared for everything.”
The final also gives Barcelona a chance to bounce back from its 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid last weekend. That loss, which ended a 19-round unbeaten streak in the Spanish league, left it in third place at just one point behind its fiercest rival and two points behind leader Atlético Madrid.
Bilbao will be aiming to improve on its toothless performance when it failed to generate scoring chances and lost 1-0 to Sociedad in the all-Basque cup final only two weeks ago.
Bilbao has always put a special emphasis on Spain’s oldest soccer tournament, which it has won on 23 occasions, second only to Barcelona’s 30. But the club that only fields players from the Basque Country region or neighbouring northern areas has not lifted the cup since 1984.
Besides the last edition, it also reached the final in 2015, 2012, and 2009, only to lose to Barcelona in all three.
Bilbao coach Marcelino García Toral has revitalized the team since he took over before it beat Barcelona in the Super Cup final. He also coached Valencia when it beat Barcelona in the 2019 Copa del Rey final, ending its run of four consecutive cup titles.
Marcelino said that his team lost to Sociedad because it let “the fear of losing” undermine confidence.
“When you feel that mental sensation, you drift away from what you have to do to win the game,” Marcelino said. “(Against Barcelona) we will play against a great rival, but we have to focus on doing what we do best and finding that mental and emotional state we need to win.”
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press