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Kings for a day: old foes in cup final

Barcelona and Athletic to play May showpiece

Real Madrid reticent to host game in Bernabéu

Athletic and Barcelona fans gather outside Valencia’s Mestalla stadium ahead of the 2009 final.
Athletic and Barcelona fans gather outside Valencia’s Mestalla stadium ahead of the 2009 final.

Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Valencia on Wednesday night completed the line-up for the King’s Cup final, which is tentatively scheduled for either May 20 or 25, dependent on whether or not Pep Guardiola’s team has a Champions League final to play or not.

On the other side of the halfway line will be Athletic Bilbao, which finally ended the near-miraculous run of third-division Mirandés with a consummate 6-2 victory at San Mamés a day earlier.

The two clubs are the most successful in the history of the competition; Barcelona has been champion 25 times, Athletic on 23 occasions. May’s match-up will be a repeat of the 2009 final, which Barça comfortably won 4-1. Athletic, though, is a different beast this season. Having struggled to adapt to the playing style of Marcelo Bielsa in the opening weeks of the campaign, which saw the team switch from its traditional 4-4-2 to a more fluent 4-3-3, Athletic has become much more expansive with young talents such as Iker Muniain, David López, Óscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera lending the side balance, poise and panache.

Fernando Llorente, for so long the target of midfield-defying punts from his own half, has gorged himself on the service being provided with 19 goals in all competitions so far this season. Midfielder Javi Martínez, like Llorente a 2010 World Cup-winner, has been recast as a central defender to magnificent effect to accommodate Bielsa’s formation.

“In a final anything can happen and we’ll have our chances for sure,” said Athletic midfielder Ander Iturraspe. “It’s an historic occasion. We have our chance and we must take advantage.”

It will be the seventh final between Athletic and Barcelona. Perhaps the best remembered is the 1984 “Battle of the Bernabéu,” when Diego Maradona proved during a post-match punch-up that his Hand of God is also quite useful in a pinch. Athletic won that match — its last King’s Cup final victory — 1-0. Barcelona, meanwhile, has now reached three finals in the last four seasons under Guardiola, winning in 2009 and losing last year’s face-off with Real Madrid.

However, the cup final venue for 2012 has yet to be decided. Real’s Bernabéu is the obvious choice in terms of size and equidistance from the cities of the two competing teams, but the Madrid club believes hosting the cup final will overshadow a potential Champions League victory; the final of that competition is on May 19. The authorities have more mundane concerns about the result of a gathering of Real, Barça and Athletic fans in the capital.

It has also been suggested that Real’s reticence is born of a spot of institutional nose-thumbing as Barcelona did not cede Camp Nou in 2004 for Real’s final against Zaragoza, which was held in Espanyol’s former Olympic Stadium.

Atlético Madrid’s Vicente Calderón has also been ruled out, with Chris Martin’s Coldplay to blame on this occasion; the British band is due to play a concert there on May 19.

Valencia president Manuel Llorente has offered the Mestalla for the match, but with two of the last three finals having been played there a less employed stadium is likely to be selected.

There is the possibility that Camp Nou could be used, with Athletic arguing that it simply wants the largest stadium possible to host the match to meet ticket demands. In the case that Barcelona’s home ground is selected, Athletic could expect 40,000 tickets to be allocated for its fans.