When FC Barcelona takes on Athletic Club Bilbao tonight in Madrid (22:00 CET, 4:00 PM EST), there will be a lot more than bragging rights on the table. But beyond all the politics of the afternoon--neither side is particularly fond of the King, and this is his Cup, after all--there will be something much more base, more pure in play. Tonight, both sides will be playing to save their season.
I know that sounds pretty drastic: I mean, both teams managed to make deep runs in European competitions (Barça lost to eventual champions Chelsea in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, while Athletic Bilbao lost to Spanish rival Atlético Madrid in the final of the Europa League), made it to this final, and finished in relatively respectable position in their domestic leagues (Barça was second, Bilbao 10th). But these achievements pale in comparison to what these two sides lost this season.
Barcelona, long thought of as invincible, and one of the best sides of all time, choked in the most important week of the season, losing their Champions League tie to Chelsea, and the all-important second Clásico to arch-rival Real Madrid in the Camp Nou. These two defeats saw Pep Guardiola announce his departure from the side (though he had clearly made up his mind to leave earlier), and saw the side crash out of the two most important competitions they were involved in. For a side so accustomed to winning, this was one of the worst weeks in recent memory.
Athletic, on the other hand, were perceived to be a club in the ascendancy when the season began. New coach Marcelo Bielsa had his side-led by a strong young core of Fernando Llorente, Javi Martínez, and Iker Muniain-playing Barcelona-style football, moving the ball around with pace, on the ground, but also scoring vertically and with style. Their acclaim stretched across the international boundaries when they dispatched of superpower Manchester United in the Europa League, after a couple of brilliant matches. Then, just as things seemed to be lining up for them, they faltered. They dropped points in the Liga--they would fall out of European contention by the end of the season--then lost brutally to Atlético Madrid and Radamel Falcao in the final of the Europa League, a match that they were favored to win.
Now, both sides are on the outside looking in. Neither have accomplished the goals they set forth at the beginning of the season, and both are looking to be able to claim at least a modicum of success. The King's Cup (Copa del Rey) is widely regarded as the least important title (apart from the minor pre- and mid-season tournaments) that major clubs compete in; last year's Cup was particularly well promoted, as Real Madrid and Barcelona played in their third Clásico in one month. Nevertheless, it was Real Madrid's victory over Barcelona was widely dismissed, as Guardiola's side went on to win the Champions League and the Liga.
Now, the tables have turned for Guardiola, who will be managing his last professional match for Barcelona. He watched Real Madrid effectively celebrate the Liga title in Barcelona in April; he saw his side crash out of the Champions League at the boots of Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres days later; and now he has a chance to grab one last trophy, to save his side's season, and to put a bow on his career as manager (not that he needs it, of course).
Marcelo Bielsa, similarly, is in a transitional period. He is still being linked with jobs all over the world, though his shine has been dulled by his side's season-ending stumble. A brilliant tactician and motivator, Bielsa will be looking to add to his still-growing worldwide reputation by defeating Barcelona again, and this time on a neutral field without the benefit of rain puddles (Barcelona lost in Bilbao this season, a match that was marred due to torrential rains).
Ultimately, this match is about desire and gumption, and neither Athletic Bilbao nor Barcelona have shown these characteristics in the last month. Both sides coasted through the final weeks of the season, suffering embarrassing results various times--we've already mentioned Barcelona's struggles, but they didn't get blown of the water by Real Madrid and watch the blancos celebrate the Liga on their own pitch like Bilbao did. Both managers, and both sides, are brilliant; tactical geniuses abound.
The question with these two sides--so alike in so many ways--this year has never been whether they have the ability to play brilliant football; it has always been whether they really desired or needed to win. And tonight, at the Vicente Calderón (Atlético Madrid's turf), we will see which side really wants to win--and save their season in the process.