Pep Guardiola leads his Barcelona side into his last game as manager in Friday’s Spanish Cup final against Athletic Bilbao determined to leave the Catalan club on a high.
It will be the last chance for the departing manager to add to the 13, out of a possible 18, trophies he has won in his four record-breaking seasons at the club.
It is also the only trophy that until now Guardiola has not managed to win at least twice, after collecting three Spanish leagues, two Champions Leagues, two FIFA World Club Cups, two Uefa Supercups, three Spanish Supercups and a solitary Spanish Cup.
Andres Iniesta is sure about what it will take for Barca to add to his and his manager’s haul of titles.
“Nobody is taking this game any more lightly than any other, this final is the last big effort of the season and we’ll have to be at our best to overcome Athletic”, he said.
Cesc Fabregas reiterated those sentiments saying: “It would be a huge send-off if we can win it for Pep, we are coming into the final full of desire to win it. And although it’s not normal to wait so long for the final we’ll be ready for it.”
For Fabregas it will be his first Spanish Cup final and he is looking forward to it.
“Sometimes the Cup final has a better atmosphere than the Champions final so I’m looking forward to experiencing it, it will be a very close game as nearly all are when these two sides meet”, he said.
In fact, Guardiola is yet to lose as a manager to Bilbao, winning nine out of 14 clashes and drawing the rest during those four seasons in charge.
Despite Bilbao’s strong season that saw them finish as impressive runners-up in the Europa League, Barca go into the game clear favourites to repeat the victory of the 2008-09 final when the Catalans ran out 4-1 victors after Bilbao had taken an early lead.
The two historic clubs have the most Spanish Cup victories, Barca with 25 to Bilbao’s 23, and both sides are appearing in their 36th final.
However in contrast to Barca’s trophy laden recent past, it is 28 years since Athletic Bilbao last won a title, after beating Barca 1-0 in the 1984 final to claim their last trophy.
The barren years weigh heavily on a club with such tradition but this season Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has rejuvenated the club with an attractive attacking style.
The plaudits have been so many for Bielsa, doubts remain as to whether he will still be in Bilbao next season, with him refusing to commit to another year contract until after the final.
For a club limited by its own rule of only signing players with links to the Basque region, the presence of a great motivator on the bench is key and top-scorer Fernando Llorente is clear about the effect Bielsa has had on the side in his first season.
“The boss is very important for us, he is making us play way beyond our limitations, we are a team that plays with a lot of heart and we deserve to win this cup.”
On how his side can overcome Barca the forward said: “We have a chance, if we are capable of playing to our best and lowering Barca’s level of play then we can win it.”
Strike partner Gaizka Toquero, who put Bilbao ahead in the final three years ago, is clear that his side will not be affected by past final disappointments.
“There will be no nerves, we deserve to be here and we’ve worked hard for it, our motivation is we don’t want to be remembered as the unlucky runners-up, this time will be different, we are more experienced then when we met in 2009”, he said.
With more then 50 000 fans set to converge on Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon stadium in the Spanish capital, the final has been tinged with political controversy.
The threat of a repeat of the anti-Spanish fan protests that drowned out the playing of the Spanish national anthem before the 2009 final has led to one politician to call for the game to be suspended.
The words from Madrid’s regional president Esperanza Aguirre have been universally played down by all parties before a game likely to be played in a convivial atmosphere before two sets of fans unified by their separatist leanings. – AFP