Football Features

“Messi makes miracles mundane” – Winners & losers as Barcelona batter Athletic Bilbao to win their 31st Copa del Rey

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:53, 17 April 2021

In a game of two halves, Barcelona battered Athletic Bilbao 4-0 to win their record 31st Copa del Rey.

The opening period was cagey and full of tactical fouls but Barcelona turned on the style in the second-half (particularly the last 30 minutes) to annihilate their opponents and reclaim the trophy they last won in 2018.

Who were the winners & losers?

Winner: Frenkie De Jong

Given the masterclasses delivered by veterans Leo Messi, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets it seems mad to say that Frenkie De Jong was the best player on the park but if you watched the game you will know just how true that statement is.

The Dutchman has come into his own this season, really finding his form after a tricky debut campaign, and it feels like it was all leading to his moment as a player initially signed to be defensive midfielder has instead blossomed as an all-action midfield dynamo.

De Jong was already playing well in the first hour, snapping into challenges and driving the ball forward into dangerous positions. He stepped it up on the hour with a great run and lightning low cross for Antoine Griezmann to open the scoring.

Minutes later the Dutchman went on another run down the right, dancing away from defenders before cutting it back. As the ball progressed to the other side of the field, however, De Jong kept on moving and when Jordi Alba sent a cross in the Dutchman made a true striker’s run and guided a brilliant header into the back of the net.

But he wasn’t done! Three minutes after that he twice exchanged passes with Leo Messi, sending the Argentine in behind where he rattled home the third goal to well and truly settle the tie in Barcelona’s favour. A monstrous performance from a midfielder clearly destined to be the best in the world at his position. A huge display that vindicated coach Ronald Koeman’s decision to put trust in him as a more attacking force, delivering for his coach in the process a first trophy in over a decade.

Winner: Lionel Messi

What more can be said about Leo Messi that hasn’t already been said. He had been his usual quietly brilliant self in the Copa final and watched, largely uninvolved as Barcelona took the lead. Then his near-post run distracted defenders and led to Frenkie De Jong’s second.

But we were still missing that moment of Messi magic, and sure enough the best player in the world delivered. Starting inside his own half the Barcelona captain dribbled through a couple of Athletic defenders then twice exchanged passes with Frenkie De Jong. The Dutchman’s pass sent him away and all that was left for Messi was to skip inside a defender and casually pass it into the back of the net.

An absolute miracle goal that recalled his effort against Athletic in the 2015 Copa final, and he wasn’t done! Less than five minutes later Messi added a fourth with a trademark passed finish off a Jordi Alba cross; a goal that gave him 9 goals in Copa del Rey finals, which is the best in history. It’s also his seventh personal Copa del Rey, which is another record. Another game, another record; Messi makes miracles mundane.

Winner: Antoine Griezmann

Antoine Griezmann has scored 15 goals so far this season for Barcelona and 4 of those have come against Athletic Club. That’s 26.6% of his goals against one club. Of course the previous three goals have come with differing sensations. The first two were in the Supercopa final, but that was a game Barcelona lost so instead of his crowning moment his glory was lost. And while he scored the winner in the Liga clash a few weeks later it was somewhat hollow given they had failed to win the trophy.

Tonight, however, Griezmann finally had his moment. It very nearly didn’t come as the Frenchman was pretty poor in the first-half doing next to nothing as the Blaugrana tried to break Athletic down. Then minutes into the second-half Sergino Dest provided him with a stupendous chance to score and he shot straight at Simon.

Credit due, however. He stuck to his task and when Frenkie de Jong provided him with a great chance from a similar position on the hour mark he did not hesitate at all and buried the chance. A huge goal that precipitated the fiesta of football that Barcelona delivered in the final 30 minutes. Will Griezmann finally show his true potential now?

Loser: Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams

You have to feel for Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams, so often the decisive attacking edge of Athletic Bilbao’s blade. These are two men who adore their club, who have been at the club their whole lives and who give everything for their club each and every time they take the field.

And thanks to Covid delaying the 2020 showpiece, this was their second Copa del Rey final defeat within the space of a fortnight. A heartbreaking loss that both men watched from the bench, tears in their eyes. How much more could they give to their club? They make the runs, they try to stretch opponents but sometimes there is just nothing you can do but silently accept defeat.

Winner: Gerard Piqué

When Gerard Piqué went down with a serious knee injury late in 2020, everyone expected his season to be over. He rushed back to play against PSG in the Champions League only to get injured again. Once more people were writing his season off, but the Catalan defender is made of sterner stuff and was determined to play the Copa del Rey final.

Ronald Koeman started the Catalan, which was a needless risk as Ronald Araujo was playing well, but in the end it was proved to be a risk worth taking as Piqué was absolutely colossal against the Basques. You would have never guessed this was his first game back from injury as he was cool, calm and in control. He marshaled the electric Inaki Williams with ease and shrugged off Athletic’s press like it was nothing.

The image of him strutting around the pitch at full-time with a gigantic bottle of champagne will live long in the memory. Don’t write Gerard Piqué off; he’s one of the game’s greatest ever defenders and will not go gentle into that good night.

Loser: Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid

Despite this being a Copa game, it could have a huge impact on La Liga’s title race. As it stands Barcelona are third behind Real Madrid and Atlético but there’s just two points between the top three and Barcelona will now be coming off a trophy win, a shot of success and confidence that could drive the Blaugrana on an 8-game winning run against the flagging Atleti and a Real Madrid side riddled with injuries and having to juggle two competitions as well.

Los Blancos and Atleti would have hoped Athletic won tonight and a demoralised Barcelona then limped uselessly to the end of the season. Now their young squad has now had a taste of trophy glory and will be hungry for more success, and their old stagers (including Leo Messi) will have been reminded that maybe there’s a reason to stick around after all.