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Barca hunt 31st cup title, Bilbao avoiding another disappointment

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Seville, April 15 (IANS) Saturday night sees Athletic Bilbao play their second Copa del Rey final in two weeks when they look to bounce back from their disappointing 1-0 defeat against Real Sociedad a fortnight ago against FC Barcelona in the Estadio de la Cartuja in Seville.

It is the fourth time Barca and Athletic have met in the final in recent years, with Barca winning the previous meetings in 2009, 2012 and 2015, Xinhua reported.

Those results, coupled with the 1-0 defeat in the 2020 final against Real Sociedad on April 3rd and a 2-1 loss to Atletico Madrid back in 1985, mean Athletic have lost the last five finals they have played, and there is a huge desire in the club to end a 37-wait for the trophy they last won in 1984.

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Barca, meanwhile, won the Copa del Rey for four consecutive seasons between 2015 and 2018. However, they were beaten 2-1 by Valencia in 2019 when Marcelino Garcia Toral, now the coach at Athletic, was in the opposing dugout.

Barca and Athletic are the two sides that have won the title the most times between them, with Barca lifting the title 30 times, while Athletic has won in on 24 occasions.

The Basque side has struggled for form in recent weeks and travel to Sevilla after four consecutive draws in La Liga. However, speaking on Wednesday, left-back Mikel Balenziaga highlighted that morale was still high among his teammates.

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The defender also remembered that Athletic beat Barca 3-2 in the Spanish Supercup in January and insisted they know what to do to repeat that result.

Although left-back Yuri and central defender Yeray Alvarez both missed last weekend’s 0-0 draw against Alaves with muscle problems, both should be fit to start on Saturday.

Their narrow 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid last Saturday means the Copa is Barca’s best chance of winning the title this season. Ronald Koeman’s side will be out to avenge January’s defeat, which also saw Leo Messi sent off for violent conduct.

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The Argentinean wasn’t fully fit for that game but is close to his best now, while Koeman should be able to welcome back Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto after injury.

The coach still has to decide whether to play a three-man defense with wing-backs Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest or to revert to a more typical 4-3-3 formation with an extra man in midfield after seeing how Madrid created chances on the break against his side. He may also opt to start with Antoine Griezmann, who has a habit of scoring against Athletic and has already done so in La Liga and Supercup this season.

Koeman’s side will go into the game as clear favorites, while Athletic needs to recover from their disappointment of two weeks ago and reproduce the form they showed at the start of the year.

–IANS

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