April 2021 will be a historic month for Athletic Bilbao.
In a span of two weeks, the Spanish club will participate in two major cup finals from the same competition: the Copa del Rey. On April 3, they will face Basque rivals Real Sociedad, while on April 17, they will play record champions Barcelona, who have won the cup 30 times.
Bilbao will have two chances to win the Copa del Rey trophy for the first time since 1984, when they also won La Liga, claiming a Spanish Double in the process. This is a golden opportunity for the proud club, who are one of the most successful outfits in Spanish football, winning eight league titles and 23 Copa Del Rey’s since 1903.
Athletic Bilbao Possess Two Chances to Make History
Two Finals in Two Weeks for Athletic Bilbao
The reason why Bilbao are competing in two cup finals from the same competition in two weeks is due to the COVID-19 pandemic turning the world upside down over the last year.
The final against Real Sociedad is from the 2020 competition, and like all of football last season, was postponed due to the virus. Despite Spanish football returning during the summer, the final was delayed to April 2021, with the hope of supporters returning by then. Because Bilbao and Sociedad are such bitter rivals, both clubs wanted this momentous event played in front of a crowd, regardless of how large.
Unfortunately, the optimistic plan has not come to fruition due to the resurgence of the virus in Europe over the winter months. Therefore, the final will take place behind closed doors, like most of sport since March 2020.
The final against Barcelona is from this season’s competition, and Bilbao could enter as defending champions if they win on April 3. In fact, these two clubs already met in a cup final earlier this year, when Bilbao defeated Barcelona 3-2 in the Spanish Super Cup back in January.
Therefore, because of the rearranged schedule, Bilbao could win three trophies in 2021, even though the match against Real Sociedad would technically count toward the 2020 season.
The Marcelino Effect
Adding further intrigue into Bilbao’s quest for cup success is club manager Marcelino García Toral. The club appointed the 55-year-old Spaniard on January 4, hoping he could translate his past Spanish top-flight success to the San Mames.
Marcelino last won the Copa del Rey in 2019, as manager of Valencia CF, who defeated Barcelona 2-1 in the final, winning the club’s first piece of silverware since 2008. Because this was the last Copa del Rey final played, he can potentially lift the trophy three times in a row, if Bilbao were to beat Real Sociedad and Barcelona.
Out of the 17 matches under Marcelino thus far, Bilbao have won nine times – a run that has included victories over Real Madrid and Barcelona to win the Super Cup. Overall, he has only lost three matches, twice to Barcelona and once to league leaders Atlético Madrid.
Despite being in charge of Bilbao for only a few months, Marcelino can become a club legend if he can deliver a Copa del Rey (or two) to the Basque supporters over the next month.
Bilbao’s Season So Far
The possibility of winning two trophies in two weeks has also helped mask the unremarkable league season of Bilbao. They are in 10th place, with only 34 points (after 27 matches), which is only good enough to be sitting in mid-table. They are not in danger of relegation but are also not in the running for the top six and European places.
However, a win in the final against Barcelona would guarantee the club’s participation in the UEFA Europa League next season. Even though there are still 11 matches remaining in the league, Bilbao’s season is riding on those two weeks in April.
Marcelino has made progress. Before he took over, Bilbao picked up just 21 points from the first 17 league matches, while scoring 20 goals and conceding 19. Through 10 league matches, Marcelino has helped Bilbao claim 13 points, scoring 17 goals in the process.
In the end though, his true magic was on display in the cup competitions, leading Bilbao to a Super Cup title, along with a spot in the club’s second consecutive Copa del Rey final.
A Defining Month
If Bilbao are to win one or both of the upcoming Copa del Rey finals, it will be well earned, as their opponents are putting together solid seasons so far. Rivals Real Sociedad currently sit in fifth place in La Liga, while Barcelona are in second and have not lost a league match since early December 2020.
Nevertheless, Athletic Bilbao have the chance to taste Copa del Rey glory for the first time in 37 years, and they have two cracks at the trophy. Additionally, they can become the first club in Spanish history to retain the cup title in the same month. After an unpredictable last year, anything is truly possible.