Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have agreed to ask that the Copa del Rey final be held with spectators present.

Sport in Spain has been on hold since March due to the coronavirus pandemic and there is no date scheduled for the resumption of LaLiga or the postponed Copa final.

Clubs were granted permission to return to hold individual training sessions from Monday, provided strict protocols were followed.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday he was optimistic sport could return soon but it would likely be behind closed doors.

However, the Basque rivals will request that measure does not apply to their Copa final, which was initially scheduled to take place at Estadio de la Cartuja in Seville on April 18.

A joint-statement published by Athletic and La Real read: "The presidents of Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, both finalists of the Copa del Rey for the 2019-2020 season, after meeting with the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation [RFEF], have agreed to ask RFEF for the final to be played with open doors, in public and in an official way, on a date to be determined and agreed between the three parties involved.

"The desire and will of both clubs has always been, now and before, to play and enjoy the final along with the supporters. This is what we would like most. A final to be lived with our supporters in the stands.

"At the same time, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club want the RFEF to guarantee that the final will be played as an official competition and will, therefore, be considered an official title.

"To this end, they have asked the general secretariat of the RFEF for the delegate committee of the RFEF General Assembly, whose next meeting will be held on Friday, to adopt a calendar amendment agreement that will enable the final to be held as an official title with the support and warmth of the fans of both teams.

"With this decision, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club wish to highlight one of the most prestigious and traditional sporting events that can be played around the world, unique in this edition, and to do so together with their fans, supporters, subscribers, members and partners, the true essence, and raison d’être of this wonderful sport."

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's a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, it's 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, explains to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It's 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.

History on hold for the phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will, in theory, be 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 but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While clearly a momentous occasion, coverage of this final hasn't been entirely positive. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – has been met with much praise on the one hand, giving smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but 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 says, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agrees. "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. Now there's 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 acknowledges, 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 a potential postponement of the final, he feels.

"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 are 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," recalls 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 replies when asked if final qualification is a sign of things to come for La Real, who were fourth in LaLiga before its suspension. "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 36-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.

Passing the ball can sometimes look like the easiest thing in the world to do. At least, it does when these guys do it.

Our latest dive into the data of 2019-20 sees us look at the best playmakers in Europe's top-five leagues before the season was called to a halt.

We've deliberately broadened our approach to what constitutes a playmaker here – Gerard Pique doesn't often appear as a number 10, unless Barca are in real trouble – as the idea is to offer a wider consideration of those players who generally use the ball better than most when in possession.

To that end, we've looked at 12 different metrics to come up with the top performers of the campaign, again from among those to make at least 10 league appearances.

While some stars are not exactly strange to see in the list below, there is a handful of more surprising names, too...

 

THE TOP PLAYMAKERS IN EUROPE'S TOP-FIVE LEAGUES 2019-20:

BUNDESLIGA:

Most successful passes: Sven Bender (1,766)
Highest passing accuracy: Axel Witsel (94.1 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Joshua Kimmich (873)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Axel Witsel (92.2)
Most passes ending in final third: Jadon Sancho (576)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Axel Witsel (88.4 per cent)
Most chances created: Christopher Nkunku (65)
Most big chances created: Thomas Muller (24)
Most assists: Thomas Muller (16)
Most assists from open play: Thomas Muller (15)
Most crosses/corners successful: Filip Kostic (71)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Dennis Geiger (50 per cent)

LALIGA:

Most successful passes: Gerard Pique (1,688)
Highest passing accuracy: Toni Kroos (93.6 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Sergio Busquets (957)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Toni Kroos (92.4)
Most passes ending in final third: Lionel Messi (698)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Toni Kroos (90.3)
Most chances created: Jose Campana (58)
Most big chances created: Lionel Messi (22)
Most assists: Lionel Messi (12)
Most assists from open play: Portu and Lionel Messi (8)
Most crosses/corners successful: Jesus Navas (43)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Benat (55 per cent)

LIGUE 1:

Most successful passes: Marco Verratti (1,581)
Highest passing accuracy: Thiago Silva (95.5 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Marco Verratti (956)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Thiago Silva (92.8 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Angel Di Maria (543)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Colin Dagba (86 per cent)
Most chances created: Dimitri Payet (87)
Most big chances created: Angel Di Maria (31)
Most assists: Angel Di Maria (14)
Most assists from open play: Angel Di Maria (10)
Most crosses/corners successful: Dimitri Payet (63)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Marco Verratti (54.6 per cent)

 

PREMIER LEAGUE:

Most successful passes: Virgil van Dijk (2,209)
Highest passing accuracy: John Stones (94 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Rodri (1,069)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: John Stones (93.9 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Kevin De Bruyne (740)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Ibrahim Amadou (93.3 per cent)
Most chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (96)
Most big chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (23)
Most assists: Kevin De Bruyne (16)
Most assists from open play: Kevin De Bruyne (14)
Most crosses/corners successful: Kevin De Bruyne (69)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Christian Atsu (47.1 per cent)

 

SERIE A:

Most successful passes: Fabian Ruiz (1,488)
Highest passing accuracy: Marlon Santos (94.1 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Fabian Ruiz (932)
Passing accuracy, opposition half: Eljif Elmas (91.5 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Luis Alberto (723)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Walace (89.7 per cent)
Most chances created: Luis Alberto (75)
Most big chances created: Luis Alberto (16)
Most assists: Luis Alberto (12)
Most assists from open play: Luis Alberto and Alejandro Gomez (9)
Most crosses/corners successful: Erick Pulgar (46)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Armando Izzo (54.6 per cent)

 

AND THE TOP 12:

Most successful passes: Virgil van Dijk (2,209)
Highest passing accuracy: Thiago Silva (95.5 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Rodri (1,069)
Passing accuracy, opposition half: John Stones (93.9 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Kevin De Bruyne (740)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Ibrahim Amadou (93.3 per cent)
Most chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (96)
Most big chances created: Angel Di Maria (31)
Most assists: Thomas Muller and Kevin De Bruyne (16)
Most assists from open play: Thomas Muller (15)
Most crosses/corners successful: Filip Kostic (71)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Benat (55 per cent)

 

With most of the world still operating under lockdown conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, most professional sport is on hold for the foreseeable future.

Given the outbreak occurred at a particularly inopportune moment for top-level football in Europe, the situation has bred uncertainty across most leagues – including Spain's LaLiga.

Competitions in Europe are facing the question of whether finishing the season, regardless of the impact it may have on future campaigns, should be the priority once normality returns.

The current focus does appear to be on concluding the 2019-20 campaign. However, even with Euro 2020 pushed back by 12 months, clubs and leagues are still having to work to tight schedules, with UEFA hoping seasons finish by the end of June.

While the discussion over how to complete the schedule continues, the Stats Perform AI team have crunched the numbers behind the scenes.

With all of the division's teams having completed 27 of 38 matches, their goal was to simulate how the rest of the season would pan out if the games were played now to produce a predicted 2019-20 table.

The statistical model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

BARCELONA CROWNED CHAMPIONS WITH 83 POINTS

The results in the statistical model see Barcelona crowned champions with a final total of just 83 points.

With 11 games to play, they presently lead rivals Real Madrid by two points, a gap that is predicted to have increased to four by the conclusion of the campaign, giving Quique Setien a first league crown.

Such have been the struggles of the big two this season, the final tally would be the lowest points recorded by a team to win the LaLiga since Fabio Capello's Madrid.

That team defeated Barca by virtue of their superior head-to-head record in a dramatic finish to the 2006-07 campaign, when the two sides accumulated 76 points.

It also suggests the chasing pack missed a rare opportunity to strike on a down year for both Clasico rivals, which will frustrate 2014 champions Atletico Madrid, who spent big on Joao Felix.

REAL MADRID FALL FOUR POINTS SHORT

The likelihood of Barca winning the title is 70.1%, with Real Madrid's chances rated at 29.9%. No other team is in with a chance of topping the table, according to the model.

But Zinedine Zidane's men are unlikely to face a challenge for second place, meaning they at least improve on their third-place finish from the 2018-19 season.

That third spot is poised to be grabbed by Atletico, who have a projected final points total of 65 and a 41.6% chance of claiming the position.

Atletico's closest challengers for third are predicted to be Sevilla (who are given a 26.1% chance) and Getafe (16.8%), with just two points separating those three sides in the final reckoning.

Diego Simeone would be thrilled with third place given his side went into the coronavirus-enforced break down in sixth, with Real Sociedad (9.1%) and Valencia (5%) the other teams in the mix.

UCL HEARTBREAK FOR LA REAL & GETAFE AS SEVILLA CLINCH 4TH

Sociedad and Getafe go into the break dreaming of a Champions League place amid fine seasons, but they are the two teams who will be worst affected by Atletico's predicted surge.

As part of a thrilling finish in the race for the top four, they are set to suffer heartbreak as Atletico pass them and they fall agonisingly short of catching Sevilla, who went into the halt in action sitting third.

Sevilla are anticipated to finish with 64 points, just one behind Atletico and one ahead of Getafe. 

Sociedad are then a further two behind Getafe with 61 as they are forced to settle for sixth, with Valencia staying in seventh on 59.

The four teams scheduled to finish between fourth and seventh all have a greater than 10.7% chance of finishing fourth, with none greater than Sevilla's 28.5%, so one bounce of the ball in a key game could still make an enormous difference.

Villarreal are predicted to finish in their current position of eighth, though they are given a 1.3% probability of breaking the top four.

Athletic Bilbao pass Granada for ninth position as Real Betis and Levante narrowly miss out on a spot in the top half.

Osasuna drop from 11th to 13th, where they are predicted to finish one point above Deportivo Alaves.

ESPANYOL SUFFER THE DROP AFTER 26 YEARS IN TOP FLIGHT

Mallorca, Leganes and Espanyol are the current bottom three in LaLiga and all are forecast to suffer relegation.

Espanyol have been in the top flight since 1994 but they go into the break six points adrift of safety and the model predicts they will be unable to make a great escape.

They are forecasted to collect 13 points from their last 11 games, but that is not even enough to get them off the bottom of the standings, highlighting the scale of the task they have ahead of them.

Similarly, Mallorca (36 points) and Leganes (35) are not expected to pick up enough victories to secure survival.

That means Celta Vigo, presently just one point clear of the drop zone, are predicted to survive with a final tally of 40, giving them a four-point cushion.

Celta are credited with 14 points between now and the end of the season to finish just behind Eibar (15th) and Real Valladolid (16th).

That means they would avoid a return to the Segunda Division, which is where they started the last decade.

Aritz Aduriz does not see his retirement nor Athletic Bilbao's Copa del Rey final with Real Sociedad as important amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The veteran striker, who has scored 172 goals in over 400 appearances for Athletic, announced his intention to retire at the end of this season back in August.

His final season as a player is set to be marked by an all-Basque Copa del Rey final between Athletic and La Real.

Originally scheduled to take place on April 18 in Seville, the Copa showpiece - along with the vast majority of sport around the world - has been put on hold.

It is not clear when the final will be played. However, Aduriz accepts even an occasion as momentous as the clash with La Real has little significance amid a crisis that has killed over 12,000 people in Spain.

"This coronavirus crisis is forcing us to think twice and consider what matters," Aduriz told Athletic's official website. "And now my retirement, or football in general, or if we will play [the Copa del Rey final] or not doesn't matter.

"I think there are many other more important things to stop and solve. I'm sure with everyone's help together, with each of us playing our role, we will get ahead of it. That's what I'm focused on at this moment and that's the most important thing."

Aduriz was born in San Sebastian, where Real Sociedad hail from, but he expects a respectful reception from their fans if and when the final goes ahead.

He added: "Maybe all of us are keeping in mind the Copa del Rey final, but we're prioritising other things now.

"We're all going through a tough time where many people are struggling a lot and even passing away…so, the final of the Copa has its importance, but maybe not that much now.

"There are other things we need to solve together, and if the day [of the final] finally comes, I'm Donostiarra [people originally from San Sebastian]. I've always felt very comfortable in Donostia [the city's Basque name] and that won't change whatever happens in any football game. I'm sure they will treat me in the same way, no doubt."

Asked about recognition for his achievements from Athletic fans, Aduriz replied: "If we've learned something from this pandemic or virus that we're struggling with, it's that we should think twice about what is important.

"I sincerely believe the people who really deserve a statue and recognition are clear nowadays, and it's not me or any football player.

"I would build a statue to those who are battling every day at the very front line against the virus in all the hospitals. They're showing us what really matters.

"We have to realise what's important and what isn't. And this is probably showing us that football isn't important enough for this kind of recognition."

The coronavirus crisis continues to challenge decision-makers in football's corridors of power and could soon leave some of the game's biggest clubs facing contract conundrums.

Manchester United, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain are among the major European outfits who are due to farewell high-profile players when free agency comes into force on June 30.

Domestic leagues across the world appear increasingly likely to run beyond that deadline, meaning sides up and down the divisions could be forced to renegotiate deals beyond the typical expiry date.

It remains to be seen how governing bodies will approach the unfamiliar territory but Edinson Cavani, Mario Gotze and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be watching closely like dozens more across Europe's top five leagues.

These are the stars and solid supporting cast members whose contract situations are worth monitoring in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

LaLiga

Athletic Bilbao: Aritz Aduriz (retiring), Benat, Mikel San Jose
Atletico Madrid: Antonio Adan
Espanyol: Ander Iturraspe
Granada: Roberto Soldado
Real Valladolid: Hatem Ben Arfa
Sevilla: Ever Banega (joining Al Shabab at end of contract), Nolito
Valencia: Ezequiel Garay
Villarreal: Santi Cazorla 

Premier League

Bournemouth: Ryan Fraser
Burnley: Joe Hart
Chelsea: Olivier Giroud, Pedro, Willian
Liverpool: Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne
Manchester City: David Silva (confirmed he will leave at end of contract)
Manchester United: Nemanja Matic, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Odion Ighalo (loan ends)
Newcastle United: Matty Longstaff
Tottenham: Jan Vertonghen, Japhet Tanganga

Serie A

Atalanta: Jose Luis Palomino
Hellas Verona: Fabio Borini
Inter: Ashley Young
Juventus: Gianluigi Buffon
Milan: Lucas Biglia, Giacomo Bonaventura, Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Napoli: Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens

Bundesliga

Bayer Leverkusen: Charles Aranguiz
Borussia Dortmund: Mario Gotze, Lukasz Piszczek
Hertha Berlin: Salomon Kalou
Schalke: Benjamin Stambouli
Wolfsburg: Robin Knoche

Ligue 1

Lille: Loic Remy
Monaco: Jemerson
Nice: Walter Benitez, Arnaud Lusamba
Paris Saint-Germain: Edinson Cavani, Thomas Meunier, Tanguy Kouassi, Layvin Kurzawa, Thiago Silva

The Copa del Rey final between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao has been postponed due to coronavirus pandemic, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has confirmed.

Basque sides Sociedad and Athletic were due to play for the trophy in Seville on April 18 but the match has been pushed back by the RFEF, Stats Perform understands

According to reports in the Spanish media, the game is set to be rescheduled for May 30.

At least the next two matchdays in Spain's top two tiers will be played behind closed doors due to the proliferation of COVID-19, though the national footballers' union has requested matches be suspended.

The RFEF also announced on Wednesday that all non-professional men's and women's football and futsal matches have been postponed for two weeks.

According to the World Health Organisation, Spain has seen 1,639 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 36 deaths.

Athletic Bilbao coach Gaizka Garitano was delighted for the Basque Country after booking a spot in the Copa del Rey final against Real Sociedad.

Despite a 2-1 loss to Granada on Thursday, Athletic reached the final on the away goals rule after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

It means they will face Sociedad on April 18 in the first Basque derby Copa del Rey decider.

Garitano was thrilled by his team's progression, which came thanks to Yuri Berchiche's 81st-minute goal.

"Joy to go to a final. Congratulations to Real because they have managed to reach the final," he said, via AS.

"Happy for a Basque final, for Basque football."

Garitano added: "The team has a lot of merit … it gets out of where it doesn't exist, it doesn't lower its head in the worst situations. Happy for the people of Bilbao, many people are happy what has happened."

After Athletic won the first leg 1-0, goals from Carlos Fernandez and German Sanchez Barahona had Granada on track before Berchiche's strike.

With Athletic (10th) behind Real Sociedad (sixth) in LaLiga, Garitano feels his side's rivals have the edge.

"Right now they are superior, but we are not easy to beat," he said.

"They have great players and they are very good."

Athletic Bilbao set up a mouthwatering Basque derby against Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey final as Yuri Berchiche's late strike saw them progress on the away-goals rule after a 2-1 defeat to Granada.

Having headed into Thursday's clash leading in the tie thanks to Iker Muniain's goal in the first leg, Bilbao looked down and out after Granada turned the contest around in the second half.

With Carlos Fernandez breaking the deadlock shortly after the interval, German Sanchez's towering header seemed to have secured Granada's first appearance in a Copa del Rey final since the 1958-59 season.

Yet it was 23-time Copa winners Bilbao who prevailed – Berchiche keeping his cool from close range to secure a 2-2 aggregate draw but, most importantly, a vital away goal, to book his side's place in the final on April 18.

Imanol Alguacil hopes Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao can join Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey final after his side's 3-1 aggregate defeat of Mirandes.

La Real held a 2-1 lead from the first leg at home, and captain Mikel Oyarzabal's first-half penalty was enough for an away victory and a place in the final.

It will be Sociedad's first Copa final in 32 years, yet head coach Imanol acknowledges it would be even more special if Athletic can also progress.

Athletic visit Granada in their second leg on Thursday after winning the home clash 1-0.

Imanol said: "Of course, I want Athletic because it would be very nice for the Basque Country.

"I also like Diego [Martinez]'s Granada for what they are doing in LaLiga, but it would be very nice to have a Basque final."

Victory at Mirandes was La Real's sixth in succession across all competitions, but Imanol is confident there is more to come, with a trip to Barcelona up next in LaLiga.

"It is very difficult to put into words how one feels after reaching a final after so many years," Imanol said. "We have made a great cup campaign, winning all the matches. I want to thank everyone who has supported us.

"The most important thing now is the final. Our responsibility is to win that final and I will not rest easy. But we can win it and do something important in LaLiga.

"This is the year and we have created this opportunity. The best is still yet to come."

Lautaro Martinez is a wanted man and his future could become clearer.

The Inter star has dazzled in Italy this season, alongside team-mate Romelu Lukaku.

And Barcelona are reportedly keen to tie up a deal for the Argentina international.

 

TOP STORY – BARCA TABLE MARTINEZ BID

Barcelona have made their first offer to Inter for star forward Lautaro Martinez, according to FCInterNews.it.

Martinez has reportedly been identified as a long-term replacement for Barca veteran Luis Suarez, while the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Manchester United are interested.

According to the report, LaLiga champions Barca have tabled a €70m bid for Martinez plus two players – Arturo Vidal and Nelson Semedo.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Telegraph says United are favourites to sign Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho at the end of the season. Liverpool and Chelsea have also been linked with moves for the 19-year-old.

Athletic Bilbao are interested in Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain, reports Marca. Bilbao have a Basque-only transfer policy, however, Argentina international Higuain qualifies due to the Basque-French origin of his grandfather.

- Amid doubts over Martinez's future in Milan, Calciomercato says Inter are eyeing Atalanta forward Duvan Zapata.

- According to Goal, Manchester City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo is considering a move to MLS outfit and sister club New York City. The 36-year-old is out of contract at the end of the season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic faces an uncertain future at Milan amid doubts over directors Zvonimir Boban and Paolo Maldini, claims Tuttosport. Boban and Maldini had reportedly been seeking to extend Ibrahimovic's contract until 2021 but the pair are reportedly set to leave San Siro following a row with Elliott Management.

Athletic Bilbao have taken charge of their Copa del Rey semi-final after claiming a 1-0 win over Granada at San Mames, but they will be frustrated at failing to secure a more commanding victory.

Gaizka Garitano's men were in control for most of the game, crafting several big chances and having two goals disallowed, but only take a slender victory to Granada for the second leg.

It came as little surprise when Athletic went in front in the 42nd minute, as Iker Muniain tapped home after fine work from Inaki Williams on the left flank.

Athletic remained the dominant side after the interval, but twice offside calls prevented them doubling their advantage, giving Diego Martinez's Granada hope for March's return encounter.

After an even start, Athletic began to carve through Granada regularly and went agonisingly close to the breakthrough in the 15th minute, but Rui Silva tipped Wiliams' fierce drive wide.

Two chances then fell to Mikel Vesga soon after – Silva palming his wicked long-range strike away from the top-left corner, before then blocking a tamer effort from inside the box a few minutes later.

Athletic eventually got the deserved opener just before half-time, the lively Williams brilliantly bringing down a lofted pass with his chest and then showing great composure to tee up an easy close-range finish for Muniain.

The hosts were twice denied a second goal inside the first 15 minutes of the second half, with Yeray Alvarez's strike chalked off for offside before Ander Capa's 20-yard volley was disallowed after a VAR review adjudged the offside Williams to have obstructed Silva's sight.

Granada began to offer some attacking threat towards the end, with Unai Simon turning Carlos Neva's drive around the post and then catching Maxime Gonalons' header from the resulting corner, as Athletic held on.

 

What does it mean?

Athletic have the aggregate lead, but Granada are not to be underestimated and represent formidable opponents in their own stadium.

In 12 home matches across all competitions this season, Granada have won eight. Three of the four teams to take something away from the Nuevo Los Carmenes are Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad, all of whom are in the top six.

When there's a Williams, there's a way

More or less everything good about Athletic's play went through Muniain or Williams, or both, but the latter was the standout performer. He gave the Granada defence so many issues with his pace and movement, and his role in the winning goal was just sublime.

Machis anonymous

Granada struggled immensely to offer any form of attacking threat, with Carlos Fernandez and Roberto Soldado provided with poor service. Darwin Machis should have been one of the players supporting them, but he touched the ball just 13 times before his 71st-minute withdrawal, failing to create a single chance.

What's next?

Athletic welcome Osasuna on Sunday as they return to LaLiga action, having not won any of their past eight league matches. Granada play host to Real Valladolid the day before. The two sides resume hostilities in the second leg at the Nuevo Los Carmenes on March 5.

Aritz Aduriz hopes to end his Athletic Bilbao career by winning the Copa del Rey, admitting he had grown tired of watching Barcelona and Real Madrid "win everything".

Athletic knocked Barca out of the competition at the quarter-final stage last week thanks to a stoppage-time own goal from Sergio Busquets.

Madrid had earlier been defeated 4-3 at home by Athletic's Basque rivals Real Sociedad, marking the first time in 65 years that Spain's grandest two clubs had been eliminated from the Copa on the same day.

The semi-finals will see Athletic face Granada and Sociedad take on Mirandes, with the decision to reformat the competition by removing two-legged ties prior to the last four paying dividends for some of Spain's lesser lights.

Aduriz was part of the team beaten by Barca in the 2015 final, during the Catalans' run of winning the trophy in four consecutive years.

Indeed, Athletic have lost three Copa finals to Barca since 2009, and Aduriz is now eager to end his career by making the most of a more level playing field.

"[The new format] is not discredited; on the contrary, it has more value," said the striker at the Panenka magazine gala. "We are a little tired of seeing Barcelona and Real Madrid win everything.

"But it is nice to see competitions with more dynamism. You can see it in England, [where] it's enriching. It's a format that people like.

"I have been fantasising about [winning the cup] for a long time. At the beginning, it was a fantasy, and it may be closer now, although it is very difficult.

"Imagine retiring from football this season and winning a title. It's anyone's dream."

Aduriz also made it clear he is in favour of VAR, despite persistent criticism of the technology from across Europe's top leagues.

VAR has been criticised since its introduction, but Aduriz stressed he is in favour of the new technology.

"I love VAR," he said. "It is clear that we have to improve. It is new and it will evolve, but there is more success than the opposite.

"It makes me calmer on the pitch."

Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad could meet in the Copa del Rey final after the Basque rivals were kept apart in the semi-final draw.

Sociedad secured their place in the last four with a thrilling 4-3 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday, with Athletic beating Barcelona 1-0 hours later thanks to a last-gasp Inaki Williams header.

It marked the first time in 65 years that LaLiga's top two clubs were eliminated from the Copa on the same day.

Gaizka Garitano's Athletic will now face Granada, who knocked out holders Valencia in the quarter-finals, while Sociedad will meet Segunda Division side Mirandes.

Athletic and Sociedad will host their respective first legs, which take place on February 12, with the return fixtures scheduled for March 4.

The final is expected to be held on April 18 at La Cartuja in Seville, which last hosted a major club football match in 2003, when it staged the UEFA Cup final between Porto and Celtic.

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