The 2022 Copa del Rey final will be a little bit special.
Two giants of the Spanish game will collide with tectonic force. Not those ones, but Real Betis and Valencia – and the final is all the better for it.
Both fanbases erupted upon qualifying for the final, shaking the foundations beneath their seats before filling the streets afterwards. It’s just the second time in the last 12 years that neither of the big duopoly will be in the final, adding a refreshing air of unpredictability – but here are five things you can expect from Saturday night’s feverish final.
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Joaquín to be the centre of attention
Forty years old and more beloved with the passing of each one, the fear is this might be his last. Joaquín is arguably the most cherished character in Spanish football on account of his flair, longevity and the fact that he is fantastic fun on and off the field. Famed for his endearing cackle, it’s rare that an interview with him on Spain’s late night radio shows doesn’t end with: “and finally Joaquín, do you have a joke for us?”
This is the perfect opportunity for him to have the last laugh. The veteran has said he will retire at the end of the season as he struggles for a starting place in the line-up. The Copa del Rey final is also the scene of one of his most famous acts. Having won the competition with opponents Valencia in 2008, one photo circulated more than any other: the Copa trophy on the floor of the dressing room and Joaquín, mid-dance, stark naked.
Whether he goes the full monty or not, all eyes will be trained on him as he looks to win a third Copa del Rey between the two teams closest to his heart.
In 2000, a 19-year-old Joaquín made his LaLiga debut.
In 2021, at the age of 40, he appears in his 19th LaLiga season, more than any player in this century. pic.twitter.com/sBkp9DbLXz
— Squawka (@Squawka) August 14, 2021
The culture clash
Whether you decided you loved or hated it, all were glued to Manchester City’s Champions League skirmish with Atlético Madrid. Before the fighting began, that was for the simple fact that it was fascinating to see two teams competing with such a completely contrary understanding of what football should be. This final promises just that again.
Valencia’s entire footballing identity begins with what they do without the ball, how they press and suffocate opponents into playing the match on their terms. It’s abrasive, aggressive and confrontational. José Bordalás’ Getafe side became so feared that pundits often forgot to give them credit when they bull rushed bigger and better-resourced opponents.
Real Betis might not be the entire antithesis of that, but they’re not too far off. In a side containing Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales at the heart of the operations, technique and raw talent are given room to roam and create. Los Verdiblancos could justly claim to be the authors of La Liga’s most beautiful goals this season. Manuel Pellegrini thinks first of how his team will make opposing defenders sweat, allowing his most talented players the freedom to send their fans into raptures with audacious passes and ridiculous runs.
Emotions getting the better of the managers
With the exception of China, Spain is the only country in which Manuel Pellegrini has not won a tournament. The Chilean has spent more of his 34-year coaching career in Spain (13 years) than anywhere else, picking up trophies in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and England. Yet a Spanish title evades him.
This is perhaps the best chance he will get to break that duck. There are plenty of reasons to admire and love Pellegrini at any age, but now with his gravelly tones and calm clarity, there is a fondness for him as a kind of grandfather figure in Spanish football.
While the Chilean boasts a glorious career with many fulfilled dreams, his counterpart Bordalás brings with him a story of grind and perseverance. Starting his coaching career in 1993, Bordalás has spent the majority of it working his way up the divisions and managing modest teams. This would be his first major trophy, although he won the Segunda with Alavés in 2016. It wasn’t until 2017 he first got the chance to compete in La Liga with Getafe, before taking on the biggest job in his native Valencian community last July. Entering his 29th year as a coach, few possess a history as long and as arduous.
It would be natural if both saw the Copa del Rey as the culmination of their own narrative arc and may well lead to emotional scenes at the final whistle, possibly even tears. Here for it.
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A North London spice to the dish
As it happens, one Tottenham player might win a trophy this season. On-loan winger Bryan Gil made the move to Spurs from Sevilla last summer and just six months later both parties decided he would be better off back in Spain.
He has been. Gil instantly became a starter for Bordalás and is likely to be so on Saturday night too. In a side short of creativity and one-on-one ability, the ‘Beetle of Barbate’ has breathed oxygen into Valencia. He was also instrumental in their semi-final victory over Athletic Club.
Standing in his way, both metaphorically and literally, is a current Arsenal player. Héctor Bellerín joined the club his grandfather used to support last summer and was instantly taken in by the Benito Villamarín. His piercing runs have been an asset for Betis, providing width and penetration for Pellegrini down the right.
The likelihood is the two line up directly against each other and the battle between them will contribute significantly to each side’s plan one way or another.
Vindication for wonderkids past and present
Part the reason this final shapes up to be so fascinating is the amount of talent assembled by both. For a variety of motives, both teams hold a stock of players that have been courted by or played for Champions League challengers.
José Gayá and Carlos Soler have chosen to sacrifice opportunities and swimming pools of money to stay longer with their boyhood club. Star forward Gonçalo Guedes also left Paris Saint-Germain to join Valencia on a permanent deal in order to develop into a star. Guedes and Soler account for exactly 50% of Valencia’s league goals and all three may still have a big move to come, with Gayá the eldest at 26.
Betis’ former wonderkids are slightly more mature. Sergio Canales is enjoying the peak of his career immensely at 31 – as are spectators. Once pursued by Liverpool, Fekir recently signed a contract extension until 2026. An exceptional third year in Seville has convinced him to stay and the club are attempting to do the same with William Carvalho. The Portuguese turned 30 two weeks ago and has been tip-toeing through defences like an oversized ballerina.
In spite of more lucrative offers elsewhere, all have been seduced by these clubs into more years than some perhaps bargained for. Winning a Copa del Rey would cement that choice as the right one.