Athletic faces Valencia in Copa after slaying Madrid, Barça
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Athletic Bilbao is again showing Spain why it claims to be the “king” of the Copa del Rey.
Athletic advanced to the semifinals of the “King’s Cup” on Thursday after eliminating Real Madrid 1-0. That came two weeks after it had prevailed 3-2 over Barcelona in added time, a victory that avenged its loss to the Catalan club in last year’s final.
“We are very happy and proud of our team and our players. It is very difficult to eliminate both Barça and Madrid back-to-back,” Athletic coach Marcelino García Toral said after his team’s victory over Madrid.
Athletic faces Valencia in next week’s semifinals, while Real Betis plays Rayo Vallecano, after Friday’s draw.
Athletic is an anomaly in global soccer. While other clubs sign players from around the world, Athletic has only players from the Basque Country region in Spain’s north and neighboring areas.
And while challenging for the Spanish league title remains unlikely, no team competes round after round in the domestic cup like Athletic. Its suffocating pressure and high-tempo attacks proved too much for the more talented squads of Madrid and Barcelona.
Athletic kept Madrid off-balance until the hosts broke through in the 89th minute at their San Mamés Stadium. Madrid midfielder Casemiro’s pass was intercepted by Mikel Vesga near the area, where he set up Álex Berenguer to curl a strike just inside the far post.
Madrid missed top scorer Karim Benzema and left-back Ferland Mendy because of injury. Even so, coach Carlo Ancelotti said that Athletic’s pressure was too much for his team. Madrid hasn’t reached the final since 2014, when it last won the cup.
“Not having to face Benzema and Mendy gave us a little advantage,” said Athletic midfielder Dani García, who was key to its relentless pressure. “To be honest, I was exhausted by the end, just like in the game against Barcelona. When you have all of San Mamés behind you and you know what is at stake, you push on through.”
Barcelona may be the all-time cup winner with 31 trophies, but no club year in, year out plays as hard in the cup as Athletic. That focus has earned it 24 cup titles, the second most in the competition’s history.
But despite its continued focus on excelling in the knockout tournament, Athletic last won the cup back in 1984. It has reached six finals since then, only to lose every time. That run of losses includes losing the last two finals, both of which were played near the end of last season after the 2020 final was postponed due to the pandemic. In a matter of a few weeks Athletic was beaten both by fierce regional rival Real Sociedad and Barcelona in back-to-back finals.
Now Athletic is one round away from a third straight final, which will be played at Seville’s La Cartuja Stadium in April.
“We still have a way to go before reaching the final and the fact that we have knocked out two powerhouses does not mean we will reach it,” García Toral said. ”(But) now we have to enjoy another special night.”
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