As the clock strikes the 91st-minute, Frenkie De Jong’s cross from the right floats into the box. Ronald Araujo rises to meet it, and his attempted header falls kindly for Ousmane Dembele at the far post. Not a moment of hesitation on the part of the Frenchman, as he lashes out a left boot, sending the ball crashing into the goal past Jordi Masip, the former Barcelona keeper who had thwarted the Blaugrana all night so far. Barcelona’s victory against Real Valladolid is sealed.
Granted, a win against Real Valladolid at home should not be as dramatic as it was on Monday night. Credit to the visitors, who will feel hard done by after a valiant effort, coming within inches of at least a point at the Camp Nou. But such is the nature of football. And in this season’s title race, there is no opponent too small and no victory too big.
Dembele’s searing strike proved to be the all-important winning goal that propelled Barcelona back into second. After Atletico Madrid fell to defeat against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, the Catalans are now within one point of Diego Simeone’s men atop the La Liga table.
Barcelona have written a fair few dramatic stories this season, especially since the turn of the new year. Before leaving it late against Valladolid, they have already subjected the fans to a couple of nerve-racking matches, wriggling free from the jaws of defeat. While Ronald Koeman has instilled a major winning mentality within the squad, a flair for the dramatic has perhaps accompanied it.
Making things difficult for themselves
Against Eibar, for example, a match where they lost Philippe Coutinho to what would become a highly problematic injury, Barcelona missed an early penalty and then conceded in the second half. But Ousmane Dembele’s 67th-minute strike salvaged a point for the Catalans.
The Super Cup semi-final against Real Sociedad followed, which Barcelona barely edged out in a penalty shootout. Marc Andre Ter Stegen’s two wonder-saves kept Barcelona in the match after de Jong’s opener was cancelled out by a Mikel Oyarzabal penalty. But they hung on through the additional thirty minutes and eventually prevailed on penalties. But the drama did not end there.
After a heartbreaking final loss to Athletic Club in the Supercup final, where Barcelona conceded a 90th-minute equaliser and eventually lost in extra time, they were once again pushed to the limit by Segunda B side Cornella in the Copa del Rey, relying on extra-time goals by Dembele and Martin Braithwaite. In the very next round against Rayo Vallecano, they had to come from behind to eventually clinch the match courtesy of an 80th-minute winner from Frenkie de Jong.
Shortly after followed a gruelling encounter against Athletic Club, once again settled by a late Barcelona goal. Then came what has perhaps been the game of the season so far — the Copa del Rey quarters against Granada.
2-0 down with less than three minutes to go, the Blaugrana outfit’s most realistic quest for silverware seemed to be at an end. But Koeman’s side were relentless, throwing attack after attack at the home side. In the 88th minute, however, Barcelona’s resurgence began. Antoine Griezmann slotted home at the near post after a glorious pass from Lionel Messi. In added-on time, Messi found Griezmann once again in a similar area, and the Frenchman headed across goal to find Jordi Alba, who nodded home from close range.
The comeback was complete, but there was more in store. In extra time, Barcelona put the pedal to the floor and smashed three more goals past the hapless hosts, who had lost all their steam and determination. In the context of the season, this win set off a chain of fabulous performances, bringing back the sense of belief among the team and the fans.
The next game was an away clash in La Liga against Real Betis. Another nail-biter which ended in joy for the Catalans as Francisco Trincao scored a belter to notch his first goal for the club. His 87th-minute strike proved to be the match-winner, and the squad burst into euphoria.
Then, of course, came the defeats to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, PSG in the Champions League and the draw against Cadiz in the league. The lowest points of Barcelona’s 2021. But the resurrection that followed was delightful.
Barcelona produced a heroic performance in the semi-final second leg against Sevilla in an encounter that had everything from goals to red cards to penalty saves. Gerard Pique’s 94th minute header took the tie to extra time for the fifth time in the season. But Martin Braithwaite’s header then booked Barcelona a place in their 42nd cup final, bringing with it a renewed sense of optimism and belief that this club can win against anyone under any circumstances.
Clearly, a lot has happened over time, which is why the fans are so happy about Barcelona’s victory against Valladolid. It may seem like a routine task, but that is precisely the point. The routine had also become troublesome, but slowly that seems to be changing once again.
It has not been an easy season for Football Club Barcelona. There have been many upsetting moments, many injuries, many missed opportunities already. As Jordi Cruyff so rightly put it, this season alone feels like it has been worth two or three. And despite all that, Koeman’s men have found their feet after enduring one of the most turbulent periods in the club’s history.
It will not always be pretty, just as Barcelona’s victory against Valladolid demonstrates, but carrying on despite endless adversity is what makes champions. And if Barcelona want to be champions this season, they will have to keep hammering away. They will have to be relentless, rigid and resilient all the way through. And they have shown on multiple occasions now that they are more than capable of it.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.