Treble comes into focus as Messi marches Barcelona to Copa title
BARCELONA -- Three things from the Camp Nou as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 in the 2015 Copa del Rey final.
1. The Messi final
This will surely go down in history as Lionel Messi's Copa del Rey final. Messi opened the scoring with a wonderful solo goal, finished the game off completely by adding his second late on and was just operating on a different level from everyone else throughout.
Even against a team packed with superstars, Athletic clearly knew who Barca's main dangerman was, and they had come prepared to make it as difficult as possible for Messi. From the off, the Argentine was regularly surrounded by two or three opponents every time he received the ball in deep areas, and within minutes of the kickoff, Messi was complaining to referee Carlos Velasco Carballo about the extra-close attention from his markers.
But Messi looked up for the task, and early on he fought hard to get away from three challenges near the centre circle and almost threaded a ball through to Luis Suarez. Soon afterward, he clipped a ball over the top which was volleyed into the net by Neymar. The goal was disallowed by the officials, although replays suggested that the offside call was wrong.
However, moments later, Messi scored one of the best goals of his entire career. He picked up the ball from Dani Alves near halfway and even with three Athletic players surrounding him -- defender Mikel Balenziaga and midfielders Mikel Rico and Mikel San Jose -- Messi still seemed well under control. The Blaugrana No. 10 ducked and dived past all three in one indescribable movement. He then drove into the box, tricked Aymeric Laporte with a duck of the shoulder, shaped to shoot toward the far post, but instead thumped the ball into a tiny gap on the other side of outfoxed keeper Iago Herrerin.
Athletic could not realistically have done any more to try and thwart the world's best player, who is now in his very best form. But maybe, in hindsight, it had been a bad idea for Athletic to make Messi angry. With just 20 minutes gone, Messi had all but certainly decided the Copa final. His second goal, nonchalantly knocked home from an Alves cross with 15 minutes remaining as three defenders looked on powerlessly, was just confirmation that this was his day alone.
Messi had also scored in the 2009 and 2012 cup final wins against Athletic, but this was about more than just getting on the score sheet, or providing some moments of individual genius; it was an incredibly talented and focused player moulding the entire game to his will.
2. Barca ruthless in sealing domestic double
Messi's goal understandably shook the Athletic defence. Every time he got the ball, his opponents rushed desperately toward him, but he was often content to lay the ball off and take advantage of the spaces opening up elsewhere on the pitch.
Soon after his first goal, Messi received the ball close to where he began his run, but this time he chipped the ball forward for an unmarked Suarez to run onto. The Uruguayan's cross was met by Neymar, but Herrerin saved superbly. Athletic were rocking now, and Alves, Suarez and Gerard Pique all went close to a second goal.
There was no surprise when Barcelona made it 2-0 on 36 minutes. Messi again received the ball surrounded by markers, and moved it quickly infield. Ivan Rakitic was twice involved in pinpoint one-touch passing which opened up the Basque back line. It allowed Suarez to again race clear and he crossed unselfishly, and this time Herrerin could do nothing to stop Neymar finding the net.
There was an intensity and vigour about Barca putting their foot on Athletic's throat, which was typical of the team this year under new coach Luis Enrique. The tiki-taka movement of the ball was reminiscent of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, but it was three "new" players -- Rakitic, Suarez and Neymar -- who were to the fore this time. The Brazilian's goal was his seventh in the competition, putting him level with Sevilla's Iago Aspas as the Copa's "pichichi" (top scorer) this year.
The second half was understandably lower key, and many Blaugrana minds had already started wandering toward next Saturday's Champions League final against Juventus in Berlin. Veteran midfielder Xavi Hernandez came on for his last Camp Nou appearance, and after the final whistle he received the trophy from Spain's new King Felipe II as Barca won for the competition for a record 27th time.
With the La Liga title already secured, and a fifth-ever domestic double achieved, the focus is now on next Saturday in Berlin. Guardiola's Barca won the only treble in Blaugrana history during his first season in charge, back in 2008-09. Luis Enrique's quite different but equally brilliant team look well set to match that feat next weekend.
3. Great crowd versus a great team
Even though the game turned out to be pretty one-sided, this was a showpiece occasion for Spanish football, in which the Catalan and Basque participants played a full part.
The Catalan capital was rojiblanco for the 24 hours pregame -- with 70,000 visitors from the Basque Country thronging the fan zone at the foot of Montjuic, the city centre Placa Reial square, and even outnumbering U.S. tourists and British bachelor parties on Las Ramblas. The atmosphere was friendly throughout, with fans of both teams mingling and joking.
Inside the stadium it was a similar story, with Athletic fans appearing to far outnumber Barca supporters among the 99,000 spectators in attendance of the sold-out match. As Barca were nominally the away team, Messi & Co. used the visiting team's dressing room, while Luis Enrique and Barca's staff and subs sat on the "other" bench. The Spanish national anthem was, as expected, whistled by followers of both sides, with chants of "independencia" from the Barca end.
"Home" advantage is not always a good thing in the Copa del Rey, with a team playing in their own stadium winning only eight of 16 past finals. And Athletic looked to take advantage of the unusual atmosphere early, with centre-forward Aritz Aduriz putting himself about in typical fashion, and youngster Iñaki Williams almost catching out Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Even when Messi had stepped up and taken control, Athletic did not just lie down. Williams clipped the bar with a snapshot just before halftime, and his side also had a spell of pressure just after the break. But general quality and experience showed clearly -- Xavi ended the game picking up his 24th trophy as a player, while Athletic's squad had just two career winners' medals between them.
The Athletic fans clearly accepted this, and kept singing and twirling their red-and-white scarves through the second half, long after it was clear the game could have only one winner. Williams' late headed consolation goal was just reward for the 20-year-old's performance, and that of his thousands of fellow Basques. The only low point was a kerfuffle between players from both sides late on, as Athletic's frustration overflowed, after Neymar tried one trick too many.
In the end there was not too much disappointment among the rojiblancos in attendance. Ernesto Valverde's side have already secured Europa League football next season through their seventh-place finish in La Liga. So this was just something which might have been a bonus. They didn't win a first trophy in 32 years, but they certainly were not losers, either.
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