Barcelona disappoint as Athletic Bilbao deservedly win the Spanish Super Cup
Three things as Athletic Bilbao claim the Spanish Super Cup 5-1 on aggregate after a 1-1 second leg draw at Barcelona's Camp Nou on Monday night.
1. Athletic see it out with relative ease
Monday night's game was not nearly as exciting as Friday night's first leg, but few Athletic games will be and none of their players, staff or fans will have cared. They had done the creative work in winning 4-0 at San Mames; the second leg's job was all about staying organised, keeping their heads and seeing out the result, which they achieved in a superbly organised and intelligent way.
Aritz Aduriz was again the symbol of the team, always working hard, harrying his opponents, annoying them into frustration and then showing the calm to knock in the away goal with 15 minutes left to make it 1-1 on the night, 5-1 on aggregate, and ensure the club's first trophy of any kind in 31 years.
The spirit and work ethic of Ernesto Valverde's side (it was his first trophy as a manager) were also characterised in another way by summer signing Eneko Boveda, the ex-Eibar right-back who was making his Athletic debut in midfield to help strengthen his team's XI.
Boveda was mostly active when Barca had possession but did his job really well, snuffing out world stars like Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi with his persistence and positioning. For a 26-year-old Athletic youth product who had spent four years away helping Eibar rise through the divisions, this was quite a way to return to his childhood side. Valverde, a former Barca winger and Espanyol coach, will also have found this extra sweet.
It was a historic night in many ways for Athletic, whose fans had been especially disappointed by last May's Copa del Rey defeat to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, their third such final loss to the Catalans in just six seasons in addition to another downer in the 2012 Europa League final. Fourteen different clubs had won a Spanish trophy since Athletic last had glory with the 1984 Copa del Rey. As beaten Copa finalists, the Super Cup isn't the most prestigious of trophies, but beating this treble-winning Barca side 5-1 over two legs to lift a trophy is worth the celebration.
Last weekend saw fans and politicians in Bilbao debating whether to float the mythical "Gabarra" barge down the Basque capital's river Nervion. The boat, with its flotilla of accompanying fans, was a common sight during the 1980s but has been packed away in a dry dock ever since. The team have a Europa League game in Slovakia against Zilina on Thursday night, so any crazy partying might have to wait. But few Super Cup trophies of any kind will have been sweeter, or more deserved, than this win for Athletic.
2. Barca trip themselves up again
Barca had never before managed to come from four goals down to turn around a cup tie and they began this game in a big hurry to get their first goal and begin the comeback. Along with Gerard Pique, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, captain Iniesta was back in the team after being rested for the first leg, eager to win the ball back and get it forward quickly.
Their best early chance came from a quickly taken corner, with Pique smashing a close-range shot off the crossbar, but Athletic's defence was comfortable enough. If anything, Barca looked over-eager, being caught offside four times in the opening 17 minutes; Luis Suarez in particular had trouble timing his runs against the Basque side's well-oiled trap.
Half-chances did start to come as Barca dominated possession, but again, there was a lack of composure. A well-worked corner found Pedro unmarked at the edge of the box, but he missed the ball entirely. Iniesta then lined up an effort from a similar position only to blast the ball into the crowd behind the goal.
Even after Messi had kept Barca's hopes alive with the night's first goal just before half-time, Barca were never really able to turn the screw and pressure Athletic. The pressure told more on the Catalans themselves, with Pique getting a straight red card from referee Carlos Velasco Carballo for something he said to the linesman after Aduriz had been judged onside when replays showed he was behind the last man.
The dismissal left Barca without their best defender and the patched-up rearguard powerless in his absence, as Athletic's veteran centre-forward was left unmarked with 15 minutes left to knock in the goal that made the result safe after a sharp initial save by Claudio Bravo.
Observers might argue that Barca's mounting frustration as the game went on at least showed that they cared, and that winning the Super Cup to keep their "sextuple" chances alive was important to them. Equally, critics could state that Athletic's players look fitter and better prepared after their more focused preseason preparations. But the lack of composure shown by Luis Enrique's side did not at all help their (albeit slight) chances of a miracle.
3. Messi again short of help
As on Friday night in Bilbao and in last Tuesday's dramatic 5-4 European Super Cup win over Sevilla, it was Lionel Messi who was by far Barca's best player. Up against Athletic's disciplined lines, the Argentine playmaker often had to come very deep to get on the ball in a bid to influence the game. More than once during the early stages did Messi receive the ball from a Barca defender only to turn and face all 11 opponents between him and the Athletic goal.
Midway through the first half saw Messi try to create something from the very spot from which he began his wonder goal in last May's Copa del Rey final, but this time, marker Markel Balenziaga was able to get a foot in and stop his run before it had started.
Barca's one genuinely top-quality move of the opening half saw Messi ram in the night's first goal. Ivan Rakitic lifted a cross to the back post, where Suarez cleverly chested the ball down, Messi's control on his own chest was instant and the finish was emphatic. That lead to some shenanigans in the net as Barca rushed to get the ball back, with Pedro booked for a confrontation with visiting goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz.
Pedro's show of determination (and the referee's subsequent disapproval) means the winger has been booked in all three of his Super Cup games over the past week. The 28-year-old's future remains very much up in the air, with a move to Manchester United still looking likely before the transfer window shuts. He looked keen to make a perhaps final impression on the Blaugrana faithful but succeeded only in winding himself up.
Another chance came and went for Pedro after half-time as he miscontrolled near the penalty spot, just when it seemed he had rounded keeper Iraizoz. Messi's hard work in deep areas set up a couple of shooting chances for Suarez but the first went straight at Iraizoz and the second flew wide.
Pedro was removed with 20 minutes remaining and showed further frustration by throwing away a water bottle as he took his place on the bench. Enrique's lack of options was laid bare as he sent on youngsters Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez even as his team needed three quick goals.
Barca hasn't looked well-prepared for these Super Cup games, seeming short of ideas when Messi was shackled and almost surprised that the fifth of their six 2015 trophies in 2015 didn't simply fall in their laps. By contrast, Athletic's players and substitutes were all working toward a well-thought-out plan to claim the trophy. On the final whistle, the Basque club were deservedly celebrating their first trophy in over three decades.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan