Messi stars as Barcelona thrash Athletic Bilbao to lift Copa del Rey

Sid Lowe at the Estadio de La Cartuja, Seville
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Spanish Royal Soccer Federation HANDOUT/EPA</span>
Photograph: Spanish Royal Soccer Federation HANDOUT/EPA

There were seventy minutes gone in the 2021 Copa del Rey final when Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi did what Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi do, replicating the move they have produced a thousand times to round off a final that ended in familiar style. Alba’s pass, Messi’s finish, and Barcelona had the fourth goal of the night and their seventh Copa del Rey in 12 years. If Messi is to depart at the end of the season at least they can remember him like this, scoring twice and lifting his 35th trophy at the club.

Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, meanwhile, lifted their first having sparked Barcelona into life with the first and second of a four goal burst early in the second half that ended what little resistance Athletic Bilbao could muster – which wasn’t much. So too did manager Ronald Koeman, who must have wondered how his team were not leading at the break, but was beaming by the end. Ultimately, they were just much too good, taking Athletic apart piece by piece. Rarely can a final have been so one-sided.

There is room for optimism at Barcelona now, one trophy secured, a league title still to play for. Maybe even a future too, whether that is with Messi or with the men he would leave behind. For Athletic, by contrast, this cut deep. They have now lost two Copa del Rey finals here in a fortnight, five in 12 years, and six since they last lifted a major trophy in 1984. Four of those have been against Barcelona, in 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2021. In each of those finals, Messi scored. And if defeat was always likely, they didn’t picture it like this, a destruction so complete, so comfortable.

If defeat was always likely, a destruction so complete, so comfortable was not. “If we think we are going to have more of the ball than Barcelona, we’re not living in the real world,” Marcelino had said, but even he can’t have imagined this. One minute and 59 seconds had passed before they even touched it, and that was a challenge that gave away a throw, the cycle beginning again and hardly finishing until the game was over.

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The chances arrived early too, possession far from sterile. Only four minutes in, Messi rolled into the path of De Jong to hit the post. That Messi had been on the edge of the six-yard box would have concerned Athletic; that he got there so easily must have worried them even more. It was a recurring theme. At half-time, Athletic could claim just 18% of the ball, Barcelona passing around them at ease, sometimes even at walking pace.

Sergiño Dest cut inside and shot wide after six minutes. Messi slotted a cleverly angled ball for Griezmann that concluded with a deflected effort sneaking past a post. A neat move between Messi and Óscar Mingueza worked them deep into Athletic’s area and yielded another blocked shot. All Athletic could do was wait, although Iñigo Martinez dived to toe-end a bouncing delivery just beyond the post, a fleeting reminder that they were actually in the game.

Lionel Messi scores Barcelona&#x002019;s third goal on his way to a 35th trophy with the club.
Lionel Messi scores Barcelona’s third goal on his way to a 35th trophy with the club. Photograph: Angel Fernandez/AP

Marcelino departed scratching his head at half-time, needing to do something, anything. Messi returned determined to put the game beyond doubt, releasing Dest to pull back for Griezmann, sliding in four yards from goal. Unai Simón made a superb point-blank save with his outstretched foot, the ball rebounding fractionally wide off the Frenchman. That was just the start, a saviour temporarily emerging. Simón saved a Pedri shot then somehow stopped Sergio Busquets who looked to the sky, unable to believe it. They had only been playing six minutes.

By the time they had played six more, Barcelona led and the dam had burst. From almost the same place as he had that first chance, Griezmann was presented with another. Superbly supplied by De Jong, on his feet this time, he sidefooted home.

Athletic had trailed 1-0 in every game on route to this final but they had never felt this sense of inferiority and any hope of a fightback was snuffed out four minutes later when the superb De Jong headed in from Alba’s delivery. Athletic were finished; Barcelona weren’t.

A wonderful move that began deep inside their own half started, continued and finished by Messi unfolded. The Argentinian was involved in a series of exchanges with De Jong and at the end of it, he stepped inside and rolled into the corner. Eight minutes, three goals, game over. Wait, no. Twelve minutes, four goals, and this was a destruction, finished off with a move seen so many times but no easier to stop for it, a hint of nostalgia and another trophy.