Barcelona faced a disappointing elimination from this season's Copa del Rey, succumbing to a 4-2 defeat against Athletic Bilbao in a heart-wrenching quarter-final match at San Mamés on Wednesday night. Despite an initial setback, Barcelona demonstrated resilience but ultimately fell short in an intense Cup tie that extended well into extra time. Iñaki Williams, a consistent threat to Barça, played a pivotal role in Athletic's victory, marking the third time in five years that Bilbao has ousted Barcelona at San Mamés.
Athletic Bilbao Triumphs Over Barcelona in Copa del Rey Quarter-Final
Initial Struggles and Bilbao's Early Lead
The match commenced with Barcelona immediately lagging due to a series of defensive blunders: a misdirected pass from Lamine Yamal sparked a sequence leading to Yuri Berchiche's cross, and a botched clearance, compounded by Iñaki Peña's hesitancy, resulted in Gorka Guruzeta scoring just 37 seconds into the game. Bilbao's aggressive high press from the start disrupted Barça's rhythm, leading to numerous unproductive long balls and a failure to maintain possession effectively. This allowed Athletic to swiftly transition from defence to offence, posing multiple threats.
After enduring a challenging initial 10 minutes, Barcelona gradually began to control the possession, methodically working the ball from the back to create attacking opportunities. However, their efforts to generate a significant chance were hindered, and their situation worsened with Alejandro Balde's exit due to a suspected hamstring injury, necessitating Héctor Fort's entry as his replacement after 23 minutes.
Barcelona's Comeback and Half-Time Advantage
The game's dynamic shifted when Andreas Christensen's precise long ball found Ferran Torres, who then located Pedri in a prime position. Although Pedri was initially thwarted, the subsequent clearance attempt by Athletic's defence ricocheted off Robert Lewandowski and resulted in an odd yet crucial goal for the visitors. This boost in confidence led Barcelona to intensify their off-ball pressure, soon paying off when Lamine Yamal, with an exceptional individual effort, curled a shot into the bottom corner, marking a remarkable turnaround for Barcelona by the half-hour mark.
Stunned by Barcelona's swift recovery, Athletic Bilbao lost momentum, and despite some offensive efforts, they failed to significantly challenge Barcelona's defence. The half-time whistle signalled the end of an exhilarating first half, with Barcelona having demonstrated admirable resilience and spirit to overcome their early setback and enter the break with a lead. However, the match was far from decided, and Barcelona was aware of the need to withstand Athletic's expected onslaught in the second half to secure their semi-final berth.
Second Half: Athletic Bilbao's Early Strike and Equalizer
As anticipated, Athletic Bilbao initiated the second half with vigour, maintaining possession and putting pressure on Barcelona, who shifted to a more defensive stance in an attempt to safeguard their lead. However, Barcelona's strategy faltered early in the half. Just four minutes in, a cross from Nico Williams from the left led to a crucial moment as Peña hesitated to leave his line, giving Oihan Sancet ample opportunity to head in the equalizer.
Impact of Iñaki Williams and Barça's Counter-Attacks
The momentum further shifted with the introduction of Iñaki Williams, who returned earlier than expected from the African Cup of Nations. Entering the game around the 60th minute, his presence and dynamism were immediately noticeable, propelling Athletic Bilbao as the more likely side to score next.
Barcelona, however, almost turned the tables during a counter-attack when Lewandowski set Yamal free with a clear path to the goal. Despite the opportunity, Yamal's chip shot over goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala missed the target, squandering a crucial chance for Barcelona.
Final Push for Victory and Missed Chances
In the last 15 minutes, Barcelona intensified their efforts, clearly aiming to avoid extra time. They exhibited greater urgency, even at the risk of leaving gaps in their defence. Xavi Hernández made a strategic move by bringing in João Félix for Lewandowski, shifting Ferran Torres to a more forward position to exploit his speed against the Bilbao defence.
A critical moment arose five minutes before the end of regulation time. Yamal skillfully intercepted the ball from Bilbao's centre-back Aitor Paredes, broke free into the box, and navigated past the goalkeeper. However, in a surprising twist, he failed to capitalize on this golden opportunity with his right foot, missing an open net and his second major chance of the half, thus keeping Athletic Bilbao in contention as the match approached its final moments.
The closing minutes of regular time did not produce any significant chances for either team, leading to the conclusion of the regulation period and the progression of the match into extra time.
Extra Time: Initial Tactical Adjustments and Energy Conservation
In the first segment of extra time, both teams appeared to use the opportunity to recover from the intense latter stages of regulation time. Barcelona held the majority of possession, methodically building their play, while Athletic Bilbao opted to defend and withstand Barcelona's attacks. This period was marked by a cautious approach from both sides, with neither expending significant energy and seemingly accepting the deadlock as they prepared for the second half of extra time.
Iñaki Williams' Critical Impact and Barcelona's Last-Ditch Efforts
The dynamics shifted dramatically in the final moment of the first extra-time half. Following a loss of possession by Sergi Roberto in midfield, Athletic capitalized on a counter-attack. Asier Villalibre's pass inadvertently set up Iñaki Williams, who initially hit the post but then followed up with a rebound goal, granting Bilbao a vital lead just before the teams switched ends.
In response, Xavi made a strategic substitution, bringing on Marc Guiu in hopes that the young striker's knack for late dramatic goals would salvage the game for Barcelona and lead to a penalty shootout. Guiu did have a promising opportunity with about 10 minutes remaining, but his attempt was straight at the goalkeeper. Athletic nearly secured their win in a subsequent counter-attack, but Peña delivered an impressive save to deny Iñaki Williams at close range.
With time running out, Barcelona had no option but to commit all players forward in a desperate search for an equalizer. Meanwhile, Bilbao looked to cement their victory with a final counter-attacking opportunity. This chance materialized in the 120th minute when Nico Williams, Iñaki's younger brother, skillfully used the outside of his right foot to curl the ball into the top corner, decisively securing the win for Athletic Bilbao.
Line-ups and Goal Scorers
Athletic Bilbao: Agirrezabala; Lekue (De Marcos 90’), Vivian, Paredes, Yuri; Prados (Herrera 90’), Vesga (Gómez 46’ (Jauregizar 105’)); Ares (I. Williams 59’), Sancet, N. Williams; Guruzeta (Villalibre 73’)
Goals: Guruzeta (1’), Sancet (49’), I. Williams (105+2’), N. Williams (120+1’)
Barcelona: Peña; Kounde, Araujo, Christensen (Cubarsí 70’), Balde (Fort 23’); Gündogan, De Jong; Yamal (Guiu 106’), Pedri (Roberto 99’), Ferran; Lewandowski (Félix 78’)
Goals: Lewandowski (26’), Yamal (32’)
The match concluded with the final whistle, marking the end of another remarkable Copa del Rey clash between these two storied rivals. Once again, Barcelona found themselves on the losing side of a thrilling encounter at San Mamés. Athletic Bilbao has consistently demonstrated their ability to emerge victorious in Cup matches at home against Barcelona. Despite Barcelona's relentless efforts until the final moments, they fell short in Bilbao, a fate shared by many other teams.
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