Ronald Koeman has said he finds it "strange" that his future as Barcelona coach is being linked to the result of the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. Koeman took charge only last year but despite an encouraging first season, his position is uncertain after the arrival of new club president Joan Laporta.
"It's a little bit strange that I need to answer questions like this because we had a run of 19 games without losing. We lose one game and I need to talk about my future?" Koeman said. "Maybe I have to accept it. I have one more year on my contract. I know it's a big pressure and I can handle that but sometimes it's a little bit strange."
Asked if he would like a public show of support from Laporta, Koeman said: "I don't need that every time the press says something. He has shown me his confidence. I know where I am. Despite the financial problems, at Barca you have to win things."
Barcelona lost to Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in January but have beat them home and away in LaLiga. Victory in Seville this weekend would be the 31st time Barca have won the competition while Athletic are going for their 24th success, two weeks after losing last year's postponed final to Real Sociedad. "It would be important for the club to win a big trophy, especially given the situation of the club," said Koeman, who said Gerard Pique is ready to play after recovering from a knee injury.
Barcelona are still in contention in LaLiga too, with two points separating them and league leaders Atletico Madrid, with eight games left to play. "It's a final that's completely separate from the league," Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen said. "But you feel good if you win and bad if you lose so our aim is to win tomorrow and get a boost for everything else we have to face."
For Athletic, defeat would mean making unwanted history as the team that lost in the final of the same cup twice in a fortnight, the first all the more devastating for the fact it came against Basque rivals Real Sociedad.
It will be a contest between the Copa del Rey's two most successful clubs in the empty Estadio La Cartuja in Seville, Barcelona having won the competition 30 times and Athletic 23, with 81 final appearances between them.
When Barca were beaten by Valencia in 2019, it was the first time in five years they missed out on the cup, their dominance creating a sense of ambivalence about the tournament, particularly when held up against more dramatic failures in Europe.
Ernesto Valverde's domestic double as coach in 2018 was all-but forgotten in the swirl of anger around the Champions League collapse against Roma, while a year later the implosion against Liverpool meant Barca were already devastated before Valencia landed a knock-out blow.
But Barcelona are not the team they were and the Copa assumes far greater importance in a season of recovery under Koeman. The Dutch coach said in January that "Barcelona are not ready to win a lot of things right now" but he will be a victim of his own progress if the team gets close in both the league and cup and comes away with neither.
There is also a growing concern about Barca's inability to deliver on the big occasion this season, with encouraging performances against Spain's lesser lights coming in stark contrast to games against tougher opponents, when Koeman's youngsters have looked exposed.
They have lost all three games played against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, were overwhelmed by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 and overrun by Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Spanish Super Cup.
Failure in the biggest matches is likely to count against Koeman when the club's new president Laporta weighs up whether to continue with him this summer, when Lionel Messi will also decide on his future. It seems unlikely that winning a seventh Copa del Rey would be decisive for Messi but a trophy could enhance the sense that he is happy again and that the club is on the right track.
Defeat would serve as a reminder of recent disappointments. Messi was sent off when Athletic won the Spanish Super Cup in January, an exhilarating contest that saw Inaki Williams' thunderbolt snatch a 3-2 victory after extra-time. Williams said it was "the best goal of my career" and his team will draw hope from that game, when they deserved to beat Barcelona three days after having beaten Real Madrid. Athletic's Asier Villalibre celebrated by playing the trumpet with his teammates dancing around him in the middle of the pitch, while Marcelino Garcia Toral hoisted a trophy in just his third game since being appointed coach.
Their momentum has slowed since then thanks to four consecutive draws in LaLiga which have made a late push for Europe unlikely, perhaps in part due to their concentration wavering as the two cup finals came into view.
The first against Real Sociedad was always going to be their best hope of winning the Copa del Rey for the first time since 1984. Today, in the same city and the same stadium where they lost a fortnight ago, they will have a second chance.