One year, 11 months and 19 days have passed since Barça last won a trophy, the 2018-19 La Liga. In the 721 days that have followed, they haven't won anything else. For the first time in years, the Copa del Rey is not the cherry on top of the cake for Barça or a trophy to rounds off a season. For the first time in years, it could change the tale of the season. For the first time in years, Barça really need it.
Starting with coach Ronald Koeman, who is still surrounded by an air of uncertainty. The Dutch coach knows that a trophy-less season would put his future at risk. Even with the Copa, nothing is being taken as a given, despite the fact new president Joan Laporta's shown confidence in him publicly. Koeman knows the club and the volatility of a president's words in April. For that reason, the final will be an especially intense occasion for him.
People close to him explain that he knows it's a unique opportunity in his career and he doesn't want to waste that chance. If Barça don't win it, so be it, but he doesn't want to have any regrets.
Against Athletic Club, Barca are a side that have a lot to prove. The first thing being that, once again, they are capable of competing in a big game when it really matters.
Until now, they have only managed that on a few occasions. They have previously been penalised for a lack of effectiveness in both areas, two aspects of their game that have defined their aspirations this season. In many matches, Barça have lacked solidness in defence and have not been clinical enough in attack.
In many games, Barça have not competed like a team that wants to win a domestic double, like in the Supercopa final, against Athletic as well. On that day, Barça were winning 2-1 in the 89th minute. It was set to be Antoine Griezmann's day. He scored the two goals. But no one remembers the Frenchman's performance, another sign of his bad luck since moving to Catalonia.
Asier Villalibre equalised in the 90th minute and Iñaki Williams won the final in extra time. Barça paid for a lack of concentration. That could have been the season's point of inflexion, but the team came up short. Despite the defeat, Koeman felt there were some good signs.
"It's not a step back, but a trophy does help to show that you're on the right path. We're going to show that's the case soon." That opportunity arrived perhaps sooner than expected, against the same side.
It's not just the shortest path to a trophy. It's also a chance to add nuance to this only being a transition season. Koeman's managed to rebuild the team without stopping competing, a triumph in itself after months in freefall. Especially when some of the performances have come thanks to the Dutchman's tweaks. Victories like the 1-6 win at Real Sociedad added value to his move to 3-5-2.
That Barça seemed to be the team reaching the final phase of the season in the best form. But after the international break, the team has lost its exuberance. They left it late before beating Real Valladolid by the narrowest of margins. And then just a few days ago the doubts returned as they lost the Clasico to Real Madrid. The biggest doubt is if 3-5-2 is the way to go or if it should just be a resource for select games.
The team has grown in recent games when Koeman's returned to the traditional 4-3-3. And he's been weighing up starting with that formation against Athletic. What there are no doubts about is Lionel Messi's presence in the side.
Barça are also making a play for Messi's future in finals like this. For someone as naturally competitive as him, it's key to feel that he can win trophies when he weighs up whether or not he continues at the club beyond this season.
On Friday, Laporta insisted that the contract renewal is "progressing adequately" but the player's camp deny that there's a firm offer to extend on the table yet. Seducing Messi has become an obsession for Laporta, who knows that he needs names with the weight of Erling Haaland to win the No.10 around. Barcelona hope Messi will be at his best in Saturday's final. Athletic fear that he is. He's played 40 games against them, scoring 27 goals and setting up 11 more.
The Argentine is up against an Athletic side whose form has dipped -- they are on their worst run under Marcelino, in which they have scored just two goals in five games and are six games without winning. There will be no fans at La Cartuja in Seville, but there will be a Copa classic between the competition's most successful clubs (Barça 30 trophies, Athletic 23).
It's a trophy that just a few years ago, Barça fans viewed without enthusiasm. It was a trophy that was seen as a complement to La Liga or the Champions League. That's not the case this season. For this Barça, the Copa del Rey has become a necessity.
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