26 May 2012

[Copa del Rey; Final] Athletic Club 0 - 3 FC Barcelona

Guardiola has taken his curtain call after a stellar performance, the 14th in four unforgettable years: a swansong oozing success and seduction.

FC Barcelona have ended the 2011/12 season with 4 titles and only 4 defeats, an almost immaculate achievement.

The upset in the Champions League against Chelsea behind them, Barça were back to their best tonight and further entrenched their legend.

Surely there was only one possible ending to the Guardiola era. His first honour as Barça manager was a Cup Final win against Athletic Bilbao, and it ends in the same way, against the club and winning the same title. In his time on the FCB bench, Guardiola has left a legacy of 14 titles out of a possible 19, but even more importantly, has done so in a way that has earned respect and admiration all around the world. Guardiola said he felt drained, but at the same time he has filled not just Barça fans, but anybody with a true love for this game, with satisfaction and pride.

After the misfortune of elimination from the Champions League against Chelsea, football has put Barça back where they belong. The Vicente Calderón witnessed just why Barça is the best team in the world, just like at Wembley a year ago. The team looked relaxed and confident, playing first touch football and passing into space as only they know. And tonight got off to the most explosive of starts, with direct and effective play. Who knows whether that was because of an especially emotional pre-match speech from the manager, but whatever was said in the dressing room before the players went onto the field, it certainly worked.

The best thing about Barça under Guardiola has been that, as they did again tonight, they always dictate the play. Incredibly, in 247 games under Guardiola, Barça have never once failed to win in terms of possession. Not even one of the finest Athletic Bilbao sides for many years, which brings back so many memories of that great team of the eighties, was able to keep Barça away from the ball. Another amazing stat is that in these four years, Barça have only lost 19 official matches.

Guardiola has not lost a single one of the 15 games he has played against Bilbao in these four years. And he has always stuck to his principles. He has never lost faith in the players that he took from the Third Division to the Champions League, Pedro and Sergio Busquets, who both started the game and performed outstandingly; he has always used Pinto in cup matches (including three finals); with Xavi and Iniesta as prime examples of players that have Barça DNA in their blood; and with Messi, winner of three Ballons d’Or, all under the Guardiola reign, the shining light in this incredible team, and who has just completed the season with an astonishing 73 goals.

In 30 minutes of fantasy football, Barça once again wowed the world with their total football. As they did in Monaco, or in Yokohama, this same season. Even without three top class defenders (Abidal, Puyol and Alves), they were able to make Athletic feel overawed by the occasion, the weight of history on their young shoulders simply looking too much of a burden. Such stark contrast to Xavi, with 20 major honours behind him.

And so there it is. The 26th Spanish Cup title for Barça. The last of the incredible Guardiola era. The last of a season in which the club has added a further four trophies to its honours list. Yet even so, it is hard to argue that this team was worthy of even more silverware, especially considering the fact that they only lost four games. But as it says on the shirts that the players were wearing all day, we play for a principle that knows no end. Pep is leaving, but Tito has also accompanied him on the journey. This is not so much a transition as a continuation. One era has ended, but the cycle continues for the greatest team in the world. Thank you, Pep! (via FCBarcelona.com)

[Match Stats]
Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, Ekiza, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Javi Martinez, De Marcos (Ander Herrera, m. 46), Muniain; Susaeta (Íñigo Pérez, m. 46), Llorente (Toquero, m. 72) and Ibai Gómez.

Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi (Cesc, m. 80), Iniesta; Pedro (Thiago, m. 86), Alexis (Keita, m. 71) and Messi.

Goals: 0-1, m. 3: Pedro takes a rebound in the area after a corner kick from Xavi and Piqué's header diverted. 0-2, m. 20: Messi beats overlook magnificent Iraizoz after a pass into space for Iniesta. 0-3, m. 25: Pedro, with a low shot from outside the box set.

Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (C. Andalusian). Admonished Susaeta (m. 39) and Iraola (c. 42), by the Athletic, and Xavi (m. 66) and Iniesta (c. 70), Barcelona.

Subs: Copa del Rey Final, played at the Vicente Calderón before some 54,000 spectators. Full.