Barcelona, Blog, Blog Post, Clubs, Spanish Copa del Rey, Valencia

ESPN FC’s Sid Lowe shares his thoughts on how Barcelona should proceed with Ernesto Valverde as his UCL failures continue to overshadow his tenure.

Spanish champions Barcelona clash with Valencia in the Copa del Rey final in Seville on Saturday (live on ESPN3, ESPN Deportes at 2:30 p.m.). Sid Lowe tells you all you need to know…

A little bit of history… and politics

Spain’s oldest competition, the “Campeonato nacional de Espana”, started as a five-team tournament held at the Estadio del Hipodromo to mark the coronation of Alfonso XIII in May 1902. The 1902 trophy is not included in the official records, but the occasion was the start of the Copa del Rey. Some two thousand people turned up, sitting on chairs rented from a trader in the Rastro market. Alfonso came as did the mayor of Madrid Alberto Aguilera, who had donated a trophy for the occasion.

The newspaper Heraldo described the scene: “little ladies in wasp waist dresses and enormous can-can dancers’ hats, with pointed gaiters. Pastel colours and flower patterns, rice flour on pretty faces. Grave, solemn gentlemen, dark colours brightened by a carnation through the buttonhole. Dandies. Sparkling uniforms. Military men, corseted into tight waistcoats and trousers like bullfighters. Playboys who have sneaked in. In the official section, grey button-up frock coats and top hats, walking sticks with marble handles.” Needless to say it looks a bit different these days.

What’s in a name?

It’s got a different name too: effectively the national title until the league was formed in 1928 (and still embossed with that title), it’s been the Copa del Ayuntamiento de Madrid (Madrid City Council’s Cup), and has changed repeatedly with the regime. It’s been the King’s Cup, the President of the Republic Cup, the Cup of the Generalisimo and then the Copa del Rey again. It was named the Cup of Free Spain in 1937 in the first year of the civil war, although winners Levante are yet to have that title officially recognised.

Who says politics and sport don’t mix, eh? To this day the King goes every year and hands out the trophy. During the dictatorship, it was Franco who did so. Barcelona midfielder Charly Rexach says it felt like a political act, a min-rebellion. “Back then the idea of pulling out of the cup as some kind of protest was impossible. If anyone said ‘let’s not play the cup’, he would have had serious problems, so the only thing you could do, the only option you had was not just to participate in it — it was to win it and joderlos, really piss them off. Just as we didn’t win many leagues, we did win a lot of cups. It was their cup, it was his cup, and we went there to piss them off.”

The weirdest finals

Madrid losing the final in their own stadium on their 100th anniversary, the Deportivo de La Coruna packing the north end of the Santiago Bernabeu and singing “Happy birthday to you!” is probably be the most famous. In 1995, a biblical storm began during Deportivo and Valencia, hail and rain hammering down and forcing the final 11 minutes had to be played three days later. In 2000, Raul Tamudo scored the opener for Espanyol when he literally headed the ball out the hands of Atletico goalkeeper Toni. After the game, the keeper could not stop sobbing: his father had died days before and he wanted to dedicate the triumph to him.

The most famous photograph in Spanish football history, meanwhile, comes from the 1936 final — the last game played before the outbreak of war. In it, Ricardo Zamora dives down to make a last minute save, securing the trophy for Real Madrid, dust flying up around him. And then there was Recreativo de Huelva versus Mallorca in 2003, two goals scored by a very young Samuel Eto’o. The league president Javier Tebas recently claimed that the one-leg format had “failed” precisely because two such modest teams had made it to the final. Which proved just one thing above all: just how wrong he is.

Then 22-year-old Samuel Eto’o’s brace in the 2003 Copa del Rey delivered Mallorca an unlikely Copa del Rey title.

The winners

The first winners were Club Vizcaya, a mixed Basque team. Which pretty much means Athletic Bilbao, who won the next two as well, before Madrid won four in a row. But it’s Barcelona who have the most titles and they’re racing away now: they’ve got 30 to Athletic’s 23, Madrid’s 19 and Atletico’s 10. They’ve won the last four and six of the last 10.

Barcelona to win this one too, then? Who needs it more?

Don’t be so sure. There’s a difference between “needs” and “wants” and that’s not always the defining factor of course. Barcelona have dominated this competition and they’re probably favourites here but there’s been a sense of depression since their Champions League final defeat to Liverpool. They’re in the same situation as they were last year when, daft though it sounds, many think that a domestic double might not be enough. It certainly won’t be something to go all celebratory about which is silly, really. But then it was all about Europe this year — even Lionel Messi said that publicly. At the same time, not getting a domestic double might well be enough for many to write this season off as a disaster. A season in which they only won the league by 11 points over Atletico and 19 over Real Madrid. It has felt like they have lacked a little motivation since Anfield but, Valverde says, “the cup will be different.”

As for Valencia, a European semi-final and a Champions League place, clinched on the final day, means that this year has been a success. Winning the cup, in their centenary season, their first trophy since winning this competition in 2008, would be huge. “The cup would make this a brilliant year after everything we have suffered and after three years when we’ve had a bad time of it,” forward Santi Mina said. He also says he’ll get the cup tattooed on him is they win it, which tells you something and not just that he likes drawing on his skin. At the club’s training ground this week, a banner had been put up by fans. “No one beats us for desire: let’s got for this.” They’re gathering momentum too. In the club shop by Mestalla, they’re selling t-shirts. That say “We want the cup” on the front. And they really, really do.

Barcelona do too, and yet… is there’s a case of wanting to not lose it more than they want to win it?

Lionel Messi will try and deliver Barcelona a second straight double on Saturday but will it be enough to save Ernesto Valverde’s job?

The happiest man in Seville

One person who wins, whatever happens on Saturday is Jeison Murillo, who is on loan a Barcelona from Valencia and is due a win bonus either way.


“After 60 games, the team is tired,” Valencia midfielder Goncalo Guedes admitted. Barcelona have played 59.

Where is it, anyway?

This time, at last, we didn’t go through that tiresome old battle: the one about where the final was going to be played and when. There’s no need for Real Madrid to claim there’s work going on at the ground as the real reason they won’t let Barcelona play a final there or for everyone else to get their knickers in a twist about not playing at the Bernabeu. For the first time, the Spanish Football Federation decided the host city before they knew who the finalists were. The result? No arguments, no bitterness, and no silliness. This year, it’s being held at Real Betis’ Benito Villamarin. That made Betis’ semi-final exit even harder to take and momentarily raised the question of whether it would be changed (a mercifully short-lived question for which thankfully they already knew the answer: no). It also means it will be hot, as it is expected to be 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) at kick-off time at 9:00 pm.

Is this Ernesto Valverde’s last game in charge of Barcelona?

Good question: is it? Two leagues, a cup, and another cup final later, two years after taking charge of a club he took over in a state of crisis, he already has many lined up against him, doubting that he is the man for Barcelona. Or, in many cases, absolutely decided that no he is not. Last year, he awoke on cup final day to the news that he would get sacked if they didn’t win it — they did, and brilliantly, 5-0 against Sevilla — and he knows that a defeat here might doom him to same fate. Barcelona’s board have said that they’re backing him, but they say a lot of things and Valverde himself may well have a thing or two to say as well.

And what about Valencia’s Marcelino?

He’s staying, stronger than ever. In January, with Valencia only four points off relegation, there were suggestions that he would get the sack: Valencia’s director general Mateu Alemany was heading out to Singapore to see the owner and the pressure built. But the players backed him and so did Alemany. Now look where both stand.

Marcelino and Valencia have turned it around after a slow start and Saturday can add a trophy to go with Champions League qualification and reaching a European semi-final.

Barcelona: players to watch.

Leo Messi.

Yeah, obviously, but…

But what? Leo Messi is Barcelona’s everything and one of these days he’ll finish off his own assist. This year even more so: Luis Suarez is out getting a knee operation done to get him fit for the Copa America — and does that say something about the diminished status of the cup? Ousmane Dembele is out as well. There have been some suggestions that Valencia might task Francis Coquelin to do something resembling a man-marking job on him. This would make sense as Messi has 50 goals this season, plus another 22 assists. Suarez has 25, Dembele 14 and Philippe Coutinho 11. Coutinho might not make it either, which means that Barcelona’s second-highest scoring starter in Seville is likely to be… Gerard Pique with seven goals.

There must be someone else. Is there a Barcelona X-factor?

Ok, how about Malcom? For all that he is forgotten (Unfairly?), for all that Valverde seems unconvinced, he does have a habit of doing good things at moments that matter.

Valencia players to watch?

“You hugged me then, now it’s my turn to hug you back,” Marcelino told his captain Dani Parejo as the team celebrated Champions League qualification last weekend. Back in January, Parejo had celebrated a goal against Real Valladolid by celebrating with his manager, a public expression of the players’ support at a time when it was all going wrong. Four months on, they had turned their season around and the manager was “grateful”, he said. Parejo, who insisted that he wasn’t prepared to give up on the season in January, has been central to everything they have done this season, dragging them on to the verge of a wonderful year. If he plays well, Valencia will have a good chance. Alongside him, the return to fitness of Geoffrey Konddogbia, described by his manager as an “octopus” is big news. When it comes to getting goals, deciding the game, Rodrigo, who has overcome his difficult start, may be important. And there’s something about Kevin Gameiro, too, especially in games like this. But it might just be Guedes who gives them the edge. He’s scored eight times in 48 days since returning to fitness.

With Neto and Ter Stegen there will also be two great goalkeepers…

Nope. Neither will play. This is the Copa del Rey, where the No. 2s become No.1s. It will be Jaume Domenech and Jasper Cillessen in goal.

A prediction.

Yeah, nice try.

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