Diego Simeone took a share of the blame for a 2-1 defeat at Athletic Bilbao and reiterated Atletico Madrid must show they have the "mental strength" to be crowned LaLiga champions.

Atleti's title hopes suffered a blow at San Mames on Sunday as Inigo Martinez's header four minutes from time consigned the leaders to what could be a costly loss.

Stefan Savic had equalised after 77 minutes, netting his first goal in the Spanish top flight for almost four years, after Alex Berenguer gave Athletic an early lead.

Martinez had the final say, though, nodding in a corner after being left unmarked to leave Atleti just two points ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Ronald Koeman's men able to take over at the summit if they win their game in hand.

Simeone says his side must show they have the right mindset to win the title.

Asked if Atleti were feeling the pressure, he said: "The Spanish championship is usually won by Barcelona and Real Madrid, except in 2014 or another year when we were close.

"For much of the season we had an advantage of many points, but we understood that Barcelona and Madrid were not going to get out of the title dispute. Sevilla also appeared.

"Whoever has more mental strength will be closer to winning."

Simeone brought on the fit-again Luis Suarez, Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar just before the hour mark, with Atleti looking short of ideas.

Former Argentina midfielder Simeone took some responsibility for a flat first-half performance.

"It is clear that if this is repeated it is more of a problem for the coach than for the team," Simeone said. "When a coach does not solve that situation, he is doing something wrong. We will try to improve."

Barca won 2-1 at Villarreal earlier in the day, following defending champions Real Madrid's goalless draw with Real Betis on Saturday.

Inigo Martinez's late header struck a blow to Atletico Madrid's LaLiga title hopes as Athletic Bilbao secured a 2-1 victory on Sunday.

Stefan Savic looked to have rescued a point for the leaders with his first goal in the Spanish top flight for almost four years 13 minute from time after Alex Berenguer had opened the scoring with an early header at San Mames.

Athletic were not to be denied victory, though, as Martinez rose to nod home four minutes from time and leave Diego Simeone's side shellshocked.

The setback means Atletico are just two points clear of Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Ronald Koeman's side having a game in hand, while Sevilla are also within three points.

Antoine Griezmann accepts Lionel Messi's future is "not in our hands" but hopes Barcelona's inspirational captain can be convinced to remain at Camp Nou.

Messi was in typically brilliant form with a brace as Barca hammered Athletic Bilbao 4-0 to win the Copa del Rey on Saturday, the Blaugrana's first trophy under Ronald Koeman.

Griezmann had started the rout with the opening goal on the hour, with Frenkie de Jong doubling Barca's lead.

Messi's future at Los Cules, where he is the club's all-time leading goalscorer, remains the subject of debate with his contract up in June and Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain still rumoured to be interested in putting together a lucrative deal for the Argentina great.

Newly-re-elected president Joan Laporta spoke of his hope that Messi, who tried to engineer a move before the start of the campaign, will stay put and Griezmann echoed those sentiments.

"I think he's good here, we'll see what happens," Griezmann said in quotes reported by L'Equipe.

"It is not in our hands.  It is he who will decide, but we are proud and happy of the have with us and hope he will stay."

Griezmann joined Barca from Atletico Madrid in a big-money deal ahead of the 2019-2020 campaign. The Copa triumph represents the first trophy since he joined Barca but LaLiga success remains a realistic prospect, with only two points separating Koeman's third-placed side and leaders Atletico Madrid.

"I am very happy and very proud," he added. "I have been in the Spanish league for 10 years and I had not won the Copa del Rey.

"It's a relief, for the club and for me too, he said. There have been ups and downs since I arrived, sometimes negative comments, sometimes unfair, but it's like I have always worked and with the team we were focused on this game since we knew each other in the final."

Lionel Messi hailed the special achievement of captaining Barcelona to another trophy as president Joan Laporta backed the superstar forward to sign a new deal with the club.

The 33-year-old scored twice in Saturday's 4-0 Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao after Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong had given Barca a two-goal lead.

With that double, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner made it a record nine goals in 10 appearances in the final of the competition to overtake Athletic great Telmo Zarra.

He has now scored the fourth most goals ever in the competition (56), meanwhile, behind Guillermo Gorostiza (64), Jose Samitier (69) and Zarra (81).

Messi's future remains a hot topic of debate with his contract due to expire at the end of the season, potentially making this seventh Copa triumph his last for the Catalan giants.

Barca were made to wait until the hour mark to find a way past opposition goalkeeper Unai Simon, but Messi is glad his side's patient approach to breaking down Athletic paid off.

"It's nice to lift a title. It's a very happy day for this group," Messi said. "It is very special to be the captain of this club. It is a very special cup for me to lift.

"We knew Athletic played this way, with a solid 4-4-2. We had patience with the ball and created spaces. We moved a lot in the first half and I think they fell in the second half.

"Not being able to celebrate it with our people, it's a shame. The situation is what we have to live in. The cups are always special and people enjoy them a lot."

Barca have enjoyed an upturn in form since the turn of the year and are two points off top spot in LaLiga, despite defeat to Real Madrid in last week's Clasico.

"It was difficult for us in the first half of the year. We lost a lot of silly points," Messi added. 

"Then we became strong, very good, and we got into the title fight. Last week, unfortunately, we couldn't get a good result from the Clasico."

Messi, who has now hit 30 or more goals for Barca in 13 successive seasons, has been touted as a possible target for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

However, recently elected club president Laporta remains confident that the Argentina international can be tempted to stay at Camp Nou beyond the end of this season.

"Leo is the best in the world, he is deeply rooted in the club," Laporta said. "I am convinced that he wants to stay and we will do everything in our power to make him stay.

"Today we have seen that he is supported by a great team."

The victory at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja marked the first piece of silverware won by Koeman since being appointed by Barcelona last August.

And like Laporta, Koeman is hopeful Barca's improved performances in 2021 will be enough to persuade Messi to put pen to paper on fresh terms.

"I hope it is not the last Messi's cup match with us, we want him to continue with us," Koeman said at his post-match news conference.

"You never know if it has been Leo's last final because it is he who must decide. As the president says, we will do our best to make him stay. 

"He has proven, once again, to be the best in the world. With enormous effectiveness, he has led the team."

It was all that was missing: a Lionel Messi goal. The rest of Saturday's Copa del Rey final was following a predictable, popular script.

Barcelona were winning. Athletic Bilbao were losing. Again.

For the second time this month, for the sixth time in succession, the final was a step too far for poor Athletic.

No club have won the Copa more times than Barca - this their 31st triumph - but for a long time that was a table topped by the team from Bilbao.

Athletic sit second on the list, with 23 wins, but none after 1983-84.

They beat Barca in the 1984 final at the Santiago Bernabeu and there has been nothing but misery for Athletic in their favourite competition ever since.

April 2021, with two opportunities, was surely the time for that run to end. But first they lost 1-0 to rivals Real Sociedad, and then, on Saturday, 4-0 to Barca. Again.

The run of six finals without a win is a new record, and four of the defeats have come at the hands of the Blaugrana.

And Messi had scored in each of the prior three.

 

Indeed, the Barca legend's very first final goal came against Athletic in 2009.

Messi played in Samuel Eto'o, saw his shot blocked and ran onto the rebound to put Pep Guardiola's side in front. They had trailed in that match and won 4-1, the first act of a stunning treble complete.

Three years later, the great number 10 was at it again.

He took Andres Iniesta's pass in his stride and rammed a right-footed finish into the roof of the net from a tight angle, the second of three Barca goals in the opening 25 minutes. A 3-0 win.

And then in 2015, perhaps Messi's best final performance of all. He scored twice and the first was one of the great goals.

The Barca forward took up possession near halfway on the left, invited in three Athletic defenders and then beat them all. Into the box he ran, skipping inside one last challenge before firing in.

So while losing to Barca - again - felt familiar for Athletic in Seville, keeping Messi at bay heading into the final quarter of the match did not.

 

Even then, from the fringes, Messi had still had a say in proceedings.

Following a tense first half in which the best opening saw Frenkie de Jong hit the post from Messi's pass, the Argentina international found his Netherlands counterpart again 15 minutes after the restart.

De Jong crossed and Antoine Griezmann, earlier denied from a similar position by the briefly inspired Unai Simon, made no mistake.

The second goal came from the other side. Jordi Alba crossed and Messi moved towards the ball, but it instead reached De Jong in the centre, stooping to nod into the net.

Messi had entered the match with 29 goals in 33 finals. His Copa record stood at seven in nine. With Athletic now all at sea, there was time left to boost those fantastic figures further.

Within five minutes of De Jong's header the chance came. Messi calmly controlled inside the area, created a yard of space and picked out the bottom-left corner with a gentle effort.

It was certainly a prettier goal than his next as Alba's cutback was sent goalwards and Simon, finally reading the script again, let Barca's fourth and Messi's second slip through his fingers - much like Athletic's hopes. Again.

Having helped their captain to a pair of goals to go away with, Barca's players made sure to secure souvenirs of their own as Messi posed for pictures with each of them alongside the Copa.

There is still a title to fight for in LaLiga before his contract expires at the end of the season and the rumour mill reopens for business, but this might have been Messi's last Barca showpiece.

On the periphery for over an hour, he wound up with a game-high six shots, three on target and two goals. If this was the end, Messi's final final, it was a fitting finish.

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona turned on the style in the second half to beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in Saturday's Copa del Rey final and win their first silverware under Ronald Koeman.

Barca were beaten 3-2 by Athletic in January's Supercopa de Espana final and they were kept at bay by the Basque club for an hour in this latest encounter at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja.

But Frenkie de Jong set up Antoine Griezmann for the crucial breakthrough goal and added the second himself three minutes later, before Messi took over with a couple of quickfire strikes as Barca made it a record-extending 31st Copa del Rey triumph.

It means yet more heartbreak for Athletic, though, after they were beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad in the delayed 2019-20 final two weeks ago.

A bemused Ronald Koeman has described the constant speculation over his future as Barcelona head coach as "a little bit strange". 

It has been a tumultuous debut season for the former Netherlands boss, who arrived at Camp Nou on a two-year contract in August. 

First up, he had to manage the fallout from Lionel Messi's ultimately unsuccessful transfer request ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. 

A failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment, but a superb recent run in LaLiga has put them into title contention. 

They did suffer a first defeat since early December against Real Madrid in El Clasico last weekend, but they are just two points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid with eight games remaining. 

Up next is Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday and, speaking at a pre-match media conference, a clearly exasperated Koeman did not hold back when asked if failure to secure the trophy would result in his dismissal. 

"If you would like to hear my opinion about this, it's a little bit strange that I need to answer questions like this," he told reporters. 

"We had a run of 19 games without losing, we lose one match and I need to talk about my future. 

"Maybe I need to accept this, but I don't agree. You have to do your job and talk to people in the club. I have one more year of my contract. 

"I know before the game what will happen if we win and if we don't win. I have to accept it. I took this job as a coach and I know there's a big pressure and I can handle that. Sometimes it's a little bit strange."

Despite speculation that Koeman may not start next season as Barca boss, the club's new president Joan Laporta did offer public support to Koeman over his future after his victory in last month's election. 

Asked if he needs Laporta's backing again following the defeat to Madrid, Koeman said: "I don't need this. We have spoken and he has shown me his confidence.

"If someone writes that the coach's future is at risk, the president doesn't have to respond to that by showing confidence.

"I'm the first to know what Laporta thinks. At this club you need to win trophies, and despite the changes and the economic situation at the club, we're here at a final and we want to win it; speculation isn't important."

This will be the fourth meeting between the sides this season, with Barca winning both LaLiga clashes and Athletic securing a dramatic 3-2 triumph in the Supercopa de Espana in January. 

Imanol Alguacil expressed his immense pride after Real Sociedad conquered Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao to win their first Copa del Rey title since 1987.

Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half penalty secured a 1-0 victory over Athletic on Saturday in what was the first ever final between the two great rivals in their current guises.

The rescheduled 2020 decider was played 350 days later than initially planned in Seville due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oyarzabal settled the first all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece since 1927 on an emotional night for head coach Imanol and La Real.

"As a manager, you can imagine I am very proud," Imanol told reporters. "I have a great feeling.

"This week, my uncle died from COVID. We received so many messages during these two weeks from all over Gipuzcoa.

"The suffering of my family, there are so many things. When I left yesterday, I was crying after receiving a video from my family members.

"There so many feelings. I am very happy, super proud to be the manager of this Real Sociedad that have made history, as we said yesterday.

"It would not have been possible without the support of the fans. Thanks to everybody."

"There so many emotions," he added. "I was in the third division with almost half of this squad four or five years ago fighting around the stadiums of Vizcaya.

"You can't imagine the emotion I can feel in this moment for being able to make the fans happy."

Oyarzabal has scored 89.5 per cent of his penalties taken for La Real in all competitions – only Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos (18) among LaLiga players has scored more penalties than him since the beginning of the 2018-19 season across all competitions (17, same as Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi).

"It's an incredible day," said a tearful Oyarzabal post-match.

"You remember everybody, all the people who would have loved to be here, people who have left us. This is for everyone, my family, my friends. It means everything."

It was another case of so close but yet so far for Athletic, who finished runners-up in the Copa del Rey for the fifth consecutive time, having also fallen short in 1985, 2009, 2012 and 2015.

Athletic equalled Madrid (five from 1918 to 1933) as the team to lose most consecutive finals in the competition's history, though Marcelino's men have the opportunity to snap that streak when they face Barca in the 2021 decider on April 17.

"I am not disappointed, because I was proud of the players I coach before the game, and I continue so. But obviously I am sad," head coach Marcelino said. "Especially, because we haven't been ourselves.

"When you far for your version, this can happen, the opponent in a specific action with not much superiority, although deserved overall, they win a title. So, we have to congratulate Real [Sociedad]. We have to assess calmy what we have to improve because we have one more option in 15 days."

Real Sociedad have won their first Copa del Rey since 1987 after Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half penalty secured a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in what was the first ever final between the two great rivals in their current guises.

Played 350 days later than initially scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic, La Cartuja in Seville played host to one of the most significant finals in the competition's history and La Real came out on top in the long-awaited encounter.

In what was the first all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece since 1927, it was perhaps fitting that someone who has played for both teams was central to the match's major moment of contention, as Inigo Martinez was sent off for the concession of a penalty, only to be hauled back on following a VAR check.

The former La Real captain's blushes were not completely spared, however, as Oyarzabal – wearing Los Txuri-Urdin's armband – dispatched the spot kick.

While Athletic desperately sought a late equaliser, Marcelino Garcia Toral's men lacked the invention to force extra-time, but they will have another bite at the cherry on April 16 when they face Barcelona in the 2020-21 final.

Establishing any form of control proved difficult for either side in a frenetic opening half that was exacerbated by the downpour in Seville.

It was not until the 33rd minute that either goalkeeper was forced into necessary action, as Athletic centre-back Martinez let fly from distance and saw Alex Remiro tip over in spectacular fashion – both players featuring against the teams whose academies they graduated from.

Athletic survived a scare at the other end soon after, with Yeray Alvarez managing to cut out Andoni Gorosabel's right-wing cross as Alexander Isak waited for a simple finish.

Martinez avoided conceding a penalty soon after the restart, with his handball deemed to be just outside the 18-yard box.

He did not get so lucky just past the hour, though, when Martinez clumsily tripped Portu as he looked to latch on to a throughball.

The red card flashed in his direction was soon overturned on review, but Oyarzabal was not as forgiving, lashing an emphatic penalty past the helpless Unai Simon.

There proved to be no way back for an Athletic side, who were generally toothless throughout.

Athletic Bilbao have long been a club unlike almost any other. It's fitting, then, that they are preparing for a cup final double-header never seen before.

The impact of coronavirus on the Spanish football schedule means Athletic will play in two Copa del Rey finals in two weeks. First, they will meet Basque rivals Real Sociedad in the delayed 2020 final on April 3; win that, and they'll be defending the trophy against Barcelona a fortnight later.

It could be a historic month for one of Spain's most prestigious clubs. One of three never to be relegated from the top flight – along with Barca and Real Madrid – Athletic have won eight league titles, 24 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. That collection includes the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

Yet Athletic have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January this year. The latter could not even be celebrated via a traditional trip down the Nervion on the Gabarra – where others say it with open-top busses, Athletic do so with a huge river-faring barge – as another occasion for fans was stolen by the pandemic.

The 2020 Copa final was pushed back this far to allow for the possibility of supporters attending in Seville, but that too won't be happening. Athletic must instead rely on an unseen but no less ardent backing from their absent fans, their loyalty undimmed by the distance from TV screens to La Cartuja.

Loyalty is one commodity Athletic have never lacked.

 

'IT'S A WARRIOR CLUB'

Athletic's first-team policy is renowned throughout the football world. For more than 100 years, they have only used players born in the region in the first team, the vast majority of them unearthed as unpolished gems in the cantera.

Iker Muniain, who will lead out the team as captain in the two finals, is one such example. He has been a fixture in the side since the age of 16, when he became their youngest debutant for 94 years in a Europa League qualifier in 2009 and, for much of those early years, he was viewed as one of the brightest prospects they had ever produced. He was still a teenager when he scored what proved to be the winning goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a Europa League match in 2012, when Athletic, coached by Marcelo Bielsa, so comprehensively outplayed the Red Devils that Alex Ferguson still remembers it as one of the toughest home European matches he ever faced.

Given his prodigious talent, some see Muniain's career as unfulfilled: no big move to a European giant, only a handful of Champions League appearances, and just two senior Spain caps seven years apart. A tally of 63 goals and 42 assists in all competitions means he only just makes the top 40 for goal involvements among LaLiga players since his debut, the same as Barca left-back Jordi Alba. But for Athletic, who award an annual prize to one-club men, 447 games by the age of 28 is something to celebrate. And if Muniain lifts the trophy after beating La Real, his story will become legend.

 

Muniain is not the only player to know nothing but Los Leones. Inaki Williams has also been linked with other clubs without ever pushing for a move – indeed, he signed a nine-year contract at San Mames in 2019, just in case his loyalties weren't clear.

Astonishingly, Williams has not missed any of Athletic's previous 185 LaLiga matches and has the competition record of 202, held by Jon Andoni Larranaga, in his sights. But you sense he would happily run himself into the ground if it meant victory on Saturday, rather as he did when he scored the extra-time winner against Barca in the January Supercopa.

"Playing a Basque derby is very special," he said this week. "Athletic are a fighting club, a warrior club – it's in our DNA. In every match [against Real Sociedad], I feel like I'm going to score."

That unifying spirit pervades the whole team. When Yeray Alvarez had to undergo chemotherapy after a cancer relapse in 2017, the squad shaved their heads in solidarity with the defender. Yeray is still less than two years into a seven-year contract signed in 2019.

That Athletic feeling never seems to leave those who do pursue careers elsewhere. Yuri Berchiche was drawn back after a decade away; Ibai Gomez returned twice, first in 2010 and then in 2019. Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez and Paris Saint-Germain's Ander Herrera have been linked with moves back, too.

Others have been lured in after careers beyond Bilbao, such as Raul Garcia and Oscar de Marcos. There are even two who made the fiendish decision to join from Sociedad: Mikel Balenziaga, who signed as a 20-year-old in 2008, and Inigo Martinez, who made the acrimonious switch three years ago to replace Manchester City-bound Aymeric Laporte.

Success might have been thin on the ground for Athletic in the past 30 years, but compromising on their ethos was never an option. It means it falls on the coaches to turn that sense of belonging off the pitch into identity on it, and Marcelino has done just that. They won the four-team Supercopa tournament, scored 13 goals in their first five league games – the best start by a new coach since Inaki Saez in 1980 – and, since he took charge on January 4, they have only lost to Barca (twice) and LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.

"Marcelino has given extra confidence to the players," former Athletic man Benat told Stats Perform News. "I think Athletic have more experience lately. I do think Athletic are a balanced team. They can play with or without the ball and they can do great things with or without the ball."

Winning these games would be greatness indeed.

 

'IT'S ONE OF THOSE SPECIAL THINGS'

Given they have lost all three of their previous Copa finals, in 2009, 2012 and 2015, Athletic might feel relieved to have two shots at glory this month.

There is little shame in those defeats, though. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe.

But while revenge served cold is on the menu for the 2021 final, the clash with La Real is arguably the main course. "If we can only win one, it's the one against La Real," said Oscar de Marcos this week, while Andoni Goikoetxea, one of the stars of 1984, described the match as one "in which the hegemony of Basque football will be played".

Former Athletic midfielder Markel Susaeta, who played in each of those most recent final defeats to Barcelona, told Stats Perform News: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important, that final.

"It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world.

"To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it is a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, with the grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explained to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It is little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

The phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will be in the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 last year but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe at the time, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, we are left with the slightly awkward prospect of two Copa finals in the space of two weeks. The 2019-20 edition will be played on Saturday, before this season's showpiece – which also includes Athletic, but against Barcelona – takes place 14 days later.

Sadly there will be no fans in La Cartuja, Seville, for the first final, but the occasion will be no less momentous.

Despite the obvious historic nature of it, coverage of the 2019-20 final wasn't entirely positive ahead of the initial date. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – was met with much praise on the one hand in its first season last term, as it gave smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but it simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez said, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agreed as he looked back on last year's coverage. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. But there was lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledged, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for the postponement of the final, he felt.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said.

"That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They were saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalled David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replied when asked if final qualification was a sign of things to come for La Real, who are fifth in LaLiga but 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Sevilla. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 37-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

Football throws up so many twists, turns and scenarios. Thanks to COVID-19, Spanish football will dish up something truly unique in April.

Two Copa del Rey finals will take place in the space of a fortnight after the 2020 decider was postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Athletic Bilbao front and centre.

Athletic will face rivals Real Sociedad in the mouthwatering rescheduled final on April 3 before going head-to-head with Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the 2021 showpiece on April 17.

Unfortunately, fans are barred from attending 'Derbi Vasco' in Seville, one of Spain's most famous rivalries as the Basque region is split between Athletic and La Real.

But it still represents a mammoth occasion in the inter-city rivalry, with Athletic – spearheaded by captain Iker Muniain, Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia – eyeing their first Copa del Rey title since 1983-84.

Benat was part of Athletic's run to the 2020 final, scoring in the first round and featuring in the last 16, before leaving San Mames for the A-League's newest team in Australia – Macarthur FC.

"Two finals are important, but Real Sociedad one is a derby and you always want to win whether it is a cup final or not," the 34-year-old, who spent seven years at Athletic before departing in 2020 but remains in contact with his former team-mates, told Stats Perform News.

"Derbies are special. But also, the Barcelona game will be nice and they will try to win."

Benat – a four-time Spain international having initially emerged from Athletic's youth team in 2005 – added: "The city of Bilbao comes along with the team in these days. The supporters are always there with Athletic. The truth is the entire city of Bilbao and the province of Bizkaia is full of red and white and they support a lot.

"The pity is they cannot attend to the game for the pandemic of COVID."

Benat's journey to Australia has seen him reunite with former Athletic team-mate Markel Susaeta in Sydney.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The 33-year-old Spanish winger wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta is no stranger to the Basque derby – he scored a brace in Athletic's 2-0 LaLiga win over La Real in 2012.

"It's clear that now is a big moment for Basque football," Susaeta, who will watch the final alongside Benat in the early hours of Saturday morning in Australia, said.

"Two finals is not normal, the situation is not normal. Athletic have a great opportunity to win a big title.

"In these matches, the emotion and intensity are very special. The wait is very long for the matches," Susaeta – part of the Athletic sides that were Copa del Rey runners-up in 2009, 2012 and 2015, said. "Athletic have been waiting for months. They are very excited. It's very difficult to control the emotions but it's a match all players want to play."

He added: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important that final. But there are two finals. I think the derby of Real Sociedad is more important.

"For Athletic, anyone can make the difference. Now they are playing well. In attack, they are creating more chances than before. They are in good condition for the finals."

Despite a change in the dugout, Athletic have already claimed silverware in 2020-21.

Marcelino replaced Gaizka Garitano in January, and he sensationally guided Athletic to a victory over Barca in the Supercopa de Espana final later that month.

Benat said: "Athletic were okay with Garitano, but they were not able to have a positive run to jump up in the table. And Marcelino has given extra confident to the players.

"The players trust him and you can see they gained confidence.

"I think Athletic have more experience lately. They have played some finals and they can have more experience, but I do think Athletic is a balanced team. They can play with or without ball and they can do great things with or without ball."

But one-time Spain international Susaeta, who reached the Europa League final with Los Leones under Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, is aware just how tough it is for Athletic to compete for trophies.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world," Susaeta added. "To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Diego Simeone has clarified comments made regarding Joao Felix after recalling the forward for Atletico Madrid's 2-1 win against Athletic Bilbao.

Speaking on the eve of Wednesday's LaLiga clash at the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone appeared to call into question the Portugal international's lack of work-rate.

"We are a team, not just one player," he told reporters. "We need everyone's contribution so that the team can function as a team, and that individuals and talent can excel."

Joao Felix has scored two goals in his past 16 games and was dropped to the bench for the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at the weekend, but he played 67 minutes against Athletic.

However, Simeone insists his remarks were misconstrued as he was talking in a more general manner, rather than about the 21-year-old specifically.

"Either I express myself badly, they interpret me badly or they just do what they want," he said at his post-match news conference.

"I speak of a general will. It is the most important thing in life; without it, the rest does not exist."

Atletico's win over Athletic in their game in hand moved them six points clear of Barcelona at the top of LaLiga and a further two points in front of Real Madrid.

Iker Muniain gave the visitors the lead in the Spanish capital, but Marcos Llorente equalised in first-half stoppage time and Luis Suarez scored a penalty winner in the 51st minute.

It was just Atleti's second win in five matches in all competitions during a patchy spell and Simeone was pleased with the way they responded to a late setback against Madrid, when Karim Benzema equalised in the 88th minute.

"It was very important how they reacted after Sunday. We needed to return to winning ways at home," said Simeone, who has overtaken Luis Aragones for the most wins in charge of Atletico with 309 in all competitions.  

"What I liked the most was that it went from a bad moment with them the better team and well positioned, to us being on top. 

"The second half was very good, and we are now level with the others in terms of the number of games played."

Llorente's headed equaliser was his ninth LaLiga goal of the campaign, adding to his eight assists in what has been an impressive season for the Spain international.

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (26) is the only midfielder to have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top five leagues this term than Llorente, who has emerged as one of Atletico's star men over the past year.

"Marcos, for a year, had no minutes. He was on the bench but continued training, working hard and had that will that leads you to be at this moment," Simeone said. 

"He is very important for us and surely for the national team as well."

Suarez won the penalty that he converted – the striker being tripped in the box by Unai Nunez – and has now earned Atletico 15 points from his 18 league goals this term.

That is four points more than any other individual has won their side in the Spanish top flight in 2020-21, but Simeone reiterated Atleti's title charge is a collective effort.

"I look to the group as a whole because individuals alone do not change a game," he said. 

"The team understood that we were not having a good time – they looked for order and then the group and the team generated a second half that we liked a lot."

Athletic were unhappy with the awarding of the decisive penalty and also argued that Llorente's goal should not have stood, coming as it did 17 seconds after the allotted two added minutes.

Marcelino, whose side are without a point away to Atletico since May 2015, felt the scoreline was harsh on his side as the hosts scored two goals from five shots on target.

"I am very satisfied with the performance of my side and I'm sad with the result because Atletico essentially took advantage of one hundred percent of their chances," he said.

Atletico Madrid recovered from a goal behind to beat Athletic Bilbao 2-1 at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday and move six points clear at the top of LaLiga.

Diego Simeone's men had won just one of their last four league matches, most recently drawing 1-1 with Real Madrid, but made their game in hand count to put some distance between themselves and Barcelona.

Marcos Llorente equalised for Atletico late in the first half after Iker Munian had opened the scoring and Luis Suarez converted a penalty he won early in the second period to put the hosts in front.

Atleti were far from their best but saw things through from that point to pick up a landmark 309th victory under Simeone in all competitions, seeing him surpass Luis Aragones with the most wins for the club.

Athletic have not picked up a point away to Atletico since May 2015 but they went ahead through their first attempt on target of the contest after 21 minutes.

Inaki Williams got in behind the home side's defence and pulled the ball back for Munian to miscue a shot past Jan Oblak from 12 yards.

Atletico gathered momentum towards the end of the first half and levelled in added time thanks to Llorente's header, which took a touch off Unai Nunez on its way through.

The turnaround was complete six minutes after the restart as Suarez sent Unai Simon the wrong way from the penalty spot after being tripped by Nunez.

Yannick Carrasco was unable to convert when set up by Suarez, who was taken off with 18 minutes to play in a defensive move from Simeone, but Nunez's header into the hands of Oblak was the closest the visitors came to an equaliser.
 

What does it mean? Atleti back on track on milestone occasion

Barca and Real Madrid had closed the gap on stuttering Atletico in recent weeks, but the pacesetters are now six points clear of Barca and a further two in front of Los Blancos. 

Simeone celebrated both goals wildly and the long-serving Atleti coach has more reasons than one to celebrate this victory, which leaves Atletico well on course for a first title since 2013-14.

He matched Aragones' win record with three points against Villarreal 10 days ago and has now surpassed the legendary manager with this latest triumph.

Llorente inspires Atletico

Suarez scored what proved to be the winner but Llorente deserves all the credit for dragging Atleti back on level terms - perhaps undeservedly - right at the end of the first half.

He has now been directly involved in 17 league goals this term, which is behind only Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (26) among midfielders in Europe's top five leagues.

Oblak beaten again

There was a point earlier this season when Atletico's defence looked impenetrable, but they have now conceded in 10 of their last 11 matches in all competitions.

Oblak was unable to keep out Munian's first-half strike, meaning he has now conceded in his last five home league games - the goalkeeper's worst run in seven years at the club.

What's next?

Atletico make the short trip to Getafe on Saturday, while Athletic are away to Celta Vigo the following day.

Marcelino lauded Athletic Bilbao, who will contest two Copa del Rey finals within a fortnight after overcoming Levante on Thursday.

Athletic saw off Levante 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to set up a showdown with LaLiga giants Barcelona in the Copa del Rey decider next month.

Supercopa de Espana champions after upstaging Barca in January, Athletic reached last season's Copa final but, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they are yet to play it – the match against their rivals Real Sociedad set for April 3.

Athletic are now gearing up for two finals in the space of 14 days next month, with a clash against Barca scheduled for April 17.

"These players have made Athletic Club history and sometimes that only happens once in a lifetime," Athletic head coach Marcelino said.

"They had to make the most of the moment and they did so."

Alex Berenguer's deflected, extra-time winner sealed Athletic's progress to back-to-back finals and saw them equal Real Madrid on 39 appearances in Copa del Rey deciders.

It completed a turnaround for the 23-time Copa winners, with Raul Garcia's penalty having cancelled out Roger Marti's opener.

"We are going to take it step by step and enjoy today at least," Raul Garcia added.

"I am very happy because of all the work behind this and hopefully it will be a historic year.

"It's an honour to fight alongside this group of friends.

"We have a lot of confidence in each other, always help each other and that's what is giving us the results."

Athletic and Barca will play their ninth Copa final – the most-contested fixture in the competition's history.

In fact, Athletic will become in the first team to play two Copa del Rey deciders in the same month.

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