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‘The Year of the Copa’ could set up games to rival Barca, Real’s Clasicos in 2011


There’s a huge amount at stake on Tuesday night in Seville when Real Betis host Real Sociedad to qualify for the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. And not simply because this is another of football’s quirks where two sides face off against each other twice in a few days — having thrashed out a brilliant 90 minutes, sharing four goals, in La Liga on Saturday.

Let me assure you that this season’s Copa del Rey (in its 118th year) has already puffed out its chest and competed for elbow room against another brilliant Supercopa tournament, and against what’s threatening to be a classic La Liga title battle — potentially only Atletico Madrid‘s third win in 44 years.

Over the last couple of weeks in the Copa del Rey some lowly Davids have put a good few Goliaths flat on their backs. Ibiza dumping Celta Vigo (fourth division beats La Liga stalwart); Cornella ousting Atletico (fourth division beating the champions-elect) and then taking Barcelona to extra time; little Almeria thrashing Alaves (who’ve beaten Madrid and Barcelona in the league this season), 5-0. Then don’t forget Alcoyano registering one of the worst defeats in Real Madrid‘s entire history (fourth division side beating Spain‘s reigning champions in extra-time despite being reduced to 10 men.)

It’s been “loco.” And to add to the upside-down nature of this glorious Copa campaign — where it’s now a knockout instead of two-legged ties, with the big sides drawn away at the “minnows” — because of the COVID-19 pandemic, last season’s delayed final is going to be played on April 4 in Sevilla’s La Cartuja stadium.

The finalists? The two giant clubs from the Basque Country: Athletic Club of Bilbao and San Sebastian side Real Sociedad.

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Los Leones (Athletic) and the Txuri-Urdin (La Real) are 123 and 112 years old respectively, Athletic have won this competition 27 times; the two historically divided Basque rivals, who glare enviously at one another from the distance of a 45 minute drive, have competed in a total of 44 finals between them but they have NEVER met in the cup final. It’s astonishing — but true. As if Chelsea and Aston Villa or Spurs and Arsenal hadn’t played each other at Wembley. And that makes April 4 super special.

The clubs, players, fans and media of the Basque Country voted unanimously to delay this potentially marvellous final until this year in the hope that society might be close to re-starting after the pandemic and that there would be a mass emigration of colourful, thirsty, noisy fans from the far north of Spain to its deepest south.

So, just consider this. Athletic and La Real, at the time of writing (come on Real Betis, don’t spoil the dream THIS early) are still both in this season’s Copa del Rey — La Real playing at Betis on Tuesday evening and Athletic facing Madrid’s conquerers, Alcoyano, on Thursday night. Meaning that so long as they both progress this week there’s the decent prospect that Athletic and La Real, given their form, clever managers, talent-splurged squads, MIGHT make it to the final of this season’s competition as well.

It’s an attractive prospect — one which is sent into orbit by the fact that the 2021 Copa del Rey final is scheduled to be held in Sevilla’s La Cartuja stadium on April 18. That’s right, let the sumptuous realisation sink in.

If Athletic and La Real qualify for this season’s showpiece then, in theory, the two Basque sides, who’ve never locked horns before in 118 years of Copa finals, would suddenly play two of them in the same stadium in the same southern city in the space of 14 crazy days.

Spanish football, for whatever reason, seems to love pitching up these quirky coincidences.

The first European Cup/Champions League final between clubs from the same country? Real Madrid vs. Valencia in 2000. The first European Cup/Champions League final between two clubs from the same city? Real Madrid and Atleti in 2014… then they did it all over again in 2016. No ‘city’ final for nearly 60 years then two in 24 months.

Domestically, I’m not aware of any other major country where the knockout FA Cup final has been contested by a club against its own youth team. Did you know about Real Madrid 6-1 Castilla in 1980 at the Santiago Bernabeu — starring greats like Juanito, Uli Stielike, Laurie Cunningham? Vicente del Bosque scored for the first team but at the end of the game BOTH sides celebrated with the trophy! Truly bizarre.

But if this Basque battle comes to pass then I think it would be most reminiscent of the “Clasico wars” of 2011. That was when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid — already on a collision course because of what Gerard Pique asserted was Mourinho’s decision take the battle off the pitch as it was “almost impossible to beat Barcelona” on it — met four times across the space of 16 feverish, angry but utterly captivating days.

The Liga match was drawn; Madrid won the Copa de Rey final in extra time; Barcelona took the first leg of the Champions League semifinal 2-0 away from home, and the return match, completing the series, was a 1-1 draw. In total there were four red cards, 26 bookings, seven goals, historic tension and Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes admitting “we all lost the place a bit.”

Back then the football world watched agog — tens of thousands of news reports around the globe followed every kick, bite, scratch and snide postmatch remark. La Liga was in the world’s spotlight and it was fabulous. A smaller version of that could happen again here.

Now, of course, Betis, Alcoyano and whoever else remains in the competition after this week’s round of 16 will have something to say about this concept. But if the tantalising dream ticket of two “Basque Clasico” Copa finals in 14 April days can come off then the temperature, never mind that Sevilla can be rainy around Easter, will be absolutely fever pitch.

Don’t forget, either, that there’s still one Athletic vs. Real Sociedad derby in La Liga left to be played. After La Real won the first one 1-0 at San Mames, helping to usher Gaizka Garitano to the exit door and helping bring Marcelino into the job, it was scheduled to be on April 4 but the Copa final will take precedence. There aren’t many clear opportunities to fit in the rescheduling of that game at Anoeta, but it would be fantastic if it were slotted in close to the Copa finals so that there’s a chance of three Basque-tastic treats in close succession.

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ESPN FC were given an all-access pass ahead of CD Ibiza’s Copa del Rey clash with Barcelona.

Of course, this being Spain, not all hope for something quirkily unique is lost should Real Betis knock Imanol Aguacil’s Real Sociedad out of the Copa on Tuesday night.

The fact is that Sevilla’s two sides, Los Rojiblancos, the Europa League holders themselves, and Real Betis are another two from the Ancien Regime who, bizarrely, have never met in the Copa del Rey final.

Just imagine: if Betis dispatched La Real and Sevilla knocked over a tired, illness and injury-hit Valencia then the two teams made the Copa final on April 18 … at La Cartuja stadium in Sevilla? It would be almost equally sensational. An ultra-divided city, both Julen Lopetegui and Manuel Pellegrini seeking their first domestic trophy in Spanish football, huge interest in the game.

We’d have Basque brilliance on April 4; Andalusian anarchy on April 18. Two never-before-seen Copa finals with bragging rights, envy, trophies, history, fear, loathing, tension, pride, ambition, identity all on the line. And an expectant world watching closely.

Truly: 2021 looks as if it will be known as “The Year of the Copa.”

Oh, and while I remember — don’t miss Real Betis vs. Real Sociedad being played at the Benito Villamarin stadium on Wednesday evening just three short days after their topsy turvy 2-2 comeback result at Anoeta on Saturday. It’ll be a beauty. And, frankly, each outcome is so exciting I don’t care who wins — just that both the quality of the storyline and the intensity of the football are glorious.



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