Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it is a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, with the grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explained to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It is little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

The phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will be in the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 last year but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe at the time, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, we are left with the slightly awkward prospect of two Copa finals in the space of two weeks. The 2019-20 edition will be played on Saturday, before this season's showpiece – which also includes Athletic, but against Barcelona – takes place 14 days later.

Sadly there will be no fans in La Cartuja, Seville, for the first final, but the occasion will be no less momentous.

Despite the obvious historic nature of it, coverage of the 2019-20 final wasn't entirely positive ahead of the initial date. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – was met with much praise on the one hand in its first season last term, as it gave smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but it simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez said, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agreed as he looked back on last year's coverage. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. But there was lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledged, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for the postponement of the final, he felt.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said.

"That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They were saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalled David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replied when asked if final qualification was a sign of things to come for La Real, who are fifth in LaLiga but 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Sevilla. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 37-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

Sergio Aguero's next destination is a hot topic of conversation after Manchester City confirmed he will leave at the end of the season.

The Argentina forward has been linked with a host of clubs, including Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

The 32-year-old has spent the past decade in England with City.

 

TOP STORY - BLUES IN BOX SEAT FOR AGUERO

Chelsea have moved into pole position to land Aguero, who wants to remain in England according to the Daily Mail.

The Blues, who wanted to sign Aguero in 2011 when he left Atletico Madrid for City, will be in the market for a forward with rumours about Timo Werner's future after an underwhelming debut season at Stamford Bridge.

Portuguese publication Record claims Benfica are also interested in Aguero, while The Sun has added Arsenal and his former club Independiente to the list.

 

ROUND-UP

- Lyon's Netherlands international Memphis Depay has been heavily linked with a move to Barcelona, but Marca claims Liverpool could 'muscle in' for the soon-to-be free agent.

- Le Parisien reports that Paris Saint-Germain are in a hurry to get Kylian Mbappe to commit to a new contract amid speculation linking him with a move away, including to Real Madrid.

- L’Equipe claims that Arkadiusz Milik has a €12million buyout clause in his Marseille loan contract from Napoli and Juventus are preparing an offer to swoop for him.

Sheffield United midfielder Ismaila Coulibaly has attracted interest from AC Milan and Galatasaray but the Blades want to keep him, according to Yorkshire Live.

Erling Haaland's agent Mino Raiola was pictured arriving in Barcelona on Thursday, but Borussia Dortmund director Michael Zorc insisted the club have "made our intentions clear" over the striker's future amid ongoing links with the LaLiga giants.

Barca are one of a number of elite teams to have been linked with the Norway international following a goal-laden 15-month spell with Dortmund that has seen him score 49 goals in 49 appearances.

Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United have also showed a reported interest in Haaland, who is believed to have a €75million release clause in his contract that comes into effect from 2022.

But talk of a move to Camp Nou at the end of this season intensified on Thursday after Spanish outlet Sport published a video showing Raiola and Haaland's father, Alf-Inge, emerging from an airport and being driven away in a private car.

It was reported that the driver is a member of Joan Laporta's staff, suggesting Raiola and Haaland senior were on the way to a meeting with the recently elected Barca president.

However, when questioned about the alleged meeting, Dortmund chief Zorc said he is "relaxed" about the 20-year-old's future and joked his entourage may have jetted to Catalonia for another reason entirely.

"I spoke to Mino Raiola yesterday. We've made our intentions very clear," he told Sport1

"There's no problem if Alfie and Mino want to sunbath on the Mediterranean Sea. I am relaxed because I know what we want!"

Speaking last week, Raiola suggested he was too cautious when moving star client Haaland from Salzburg to Dortmund in January 2020 and hinted the in-demand striker may seek pastures new in the next window.

Haaland has scored 21 goals in as many Bundesliga games this term, adding another 10 from six games in the Champions League, a competition in which he tops the scoring charts.

Erling Haaland was back at the centre of Barcelona transfer speculation as his agent and father were pictured arriving in the Spanish city on Thursday.

The Spanish newspaper Sport published video on its website that showed agent Mino Raiola and Alf-Inge Haaland emerging from an airport and being driven away in a private car.

It was reported that the driver was a member of Barcelona president Joan Laporta's staff, pointing to Raiola and Haaland senior being on the way to a meeting with the newly elected Camp Nou chief.

Haaland has been long linked with a move to Barcelona, having dazzled in 15 months with Borussia Dortmund and emerged as a target for elite clubs across Europe.

Among those reported to have shown interest in the Norwegian are Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United, suggesting Barca may face a major battle to secure the 20-year-old, should he become available later this year.

Haaland is reputed to have a clause in his Dortmund contract that would allow him to leave for €75million at the end of the 2021-22 campaign, although this has never been confirmed by club officials.

His value even in a slightly deflated market is significantly higher than that at present, which may mean a departure at the end of this season suits all parties if there is no prospect of Haaland having a long-term stay in Dortmund.

Barcelona have been hit hard in economic terms by the COVID-19 crisis, but president Laporta will want to make his mark after returning to office last month, 11 years after his first stint in charge ended.

For Haaland to join Madrid would be a huge blow to Barca at a time when there is uncertainty over Lionel Messi's future. Blaugrana captain Messi is due to reach the end of his contract at the end of this season and has been repeatedly linked with PSG.

The club's record goalscorer may see the arrival of an exciting figure such as Haaland as an incentive to stay in Catalonia and a sign of Barcelona's ambition.

Since leaving Salzburg to join Dortmund in mid-season during the 2019-20 campaign, Haaland has scored 49 goals in 49 games across all competitions at club level, including 33 in 31 appearances this term.

Eric Garcia showed exactly why Manchester City wanted to keep him in the Premier League as Spain took their first steps towards the World Cup, according to Luis Enrique.

The 20-year-old defender looks certain to leave City for Barcelona at the end of the season, having turned down the chance of a new contract with the Premier League leaders.

Garcia has not started a Premier League match since October, making just two fleeting substitute appearances in the competition since then, with Pep Guardiola mainly trusting John Stones and Ruben Dias.

He played three consecutive World Cup qualifying games for Spain during the international break, however, lining up against Greece, Georgia and Kosovo.

"The situation with Eric is not normal," Spain coach Luis Enrique said. "We took some risks by calling a player who has played very little this season, but we trust him so much and his level is so high that, after three months without playing, he is able to come here and play three high-level games.

"He is a very intelligent player, you would never believe how young he is given how he behaves on the pitch. He gives us a lot of confidence in defence, he is very skilled, so that is why Man City have been trying to re-sign his contract for a long while, although he made a different decision."

Former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique added: "We are so happy to have a player like Eric. He leads our defence and is very communicative on the pitch and smart.

"He knows what to do every time and also is aware of the aspects he has to improve. Even though he does not play at his club, he can come here and do it well. He has just proved his [high] level the week he has been here."

Lionel Messi has been tipped to leave Barcelona for either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

But Haaland could reportedly unlock Messi's future.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND TO CITY MEANS BARCA STAY FOR MESSI?

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland could hold the key to Lionel Messi's future at Barcelona, according to the front page of Thursday's Diario AS.

Haaland is a player in demand, linked with Barca, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

City have been tipped to sign Messi, but should they step up their pursuit of Haaland, the Premier League leaders could reportedly drop their interest in the Barca captain.

 

ROUND-UP

- Mundo Deportivo says new Barca president Joan Laporta is preparing a contract renewal for Messi, who is set to become a free agent at season's end.

- Bayern Munich are eyeing a move for Tottenham star Son Heung-min, claims Football Insider. Son has reportedly been offered a bumper new contract by Spurs, but the former Bayer Leverkusen forward is wanted in Munich.

- Sporting CP's Joao Palhinha, Borussia Monchengladbach star Denis Zakaria and Sander Berge of Sheffield United are on the list of midfielders to replace City veteran Fernandinho, reports A Bola.

- Gazzetta dello Sport says Juventus and Barca are interested in Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli. The Italy defender is out of contract in 2022 and is reportedly seeking a €6million-a-year contract.

Napoli are eyeing Lazio head coach Simone Inzaghi and sporting director Igli Tare, claims Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli. Gennaro Gattuso has been tipped to leave Napoli at the end of the season, with ex-Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri, Luciano Spalletti and Hellas Verona's Ivan Juric among the possible replacements. But Lazio duo Inzaghi and Tare are being monitored to replace Gattuso and Cristiano Giuntoli in Naples.

United are interested in Lille defender Sven Botman, according to Fabrizio Romano. Sevilla star Jules Kounde has been on United's radar but the club's asking price of €80m (£68m) is too steep.

- Romano also says there is no agreement with United and Paul Pogba over a new contract. Pogba has been linked with former club Juve, Madrid and PSG.

Barcelona youngster Ansu Fati seems to have hinted he could be facing up to a year on the sidelines due to his current knee injury.

Fati suffered a serious knee injury in November, having played 10 games in all competitions, scoring five goals. 

The Spain winger had surgery to address the problem with his meniscus and was reportedly set for four months out, but his return has been pushed back until at least April, with no firm timescale on his comeback.

It is not the first serious injury the 18-year-old has sustained, however, with Fati revealing he previously spent close to a year out of action due to fracturing his tibia and fibia – a lay-off he believes has prepared him for the challenge which he is going through.

"A few years ago I had a serious injury, a fractured tibia and fibula, and I couldn't play for almost a year." Fati wrote in a post on his official Instagram account.

"There were many days of suffering and pain, but also a lot of learning. It helped me to appreciate the little details.

"With my family and all the professionals who helped me at that time, I promised myself to keep going and work harder than ever to get back to doing what I love the most.

"Unfortunately, now I have to live through a similar situation, which I will face with the same mentality.

"I want to thank all those people who follow me and support me on a daily basis. Football is my life and no matter how many obstacles there are, I will always have the illusion of continuing to fight for my dreams."

Fati's comments cast further doubt over his chances of returning to action prior to the end of the season, which would also derail any opportunity of making Luis Enrique's Spain squad for the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, which begins in June.

Reports last week suggested Fati was looking to exhaust other options other than going under the knife again which, according to Spanish publication AS, was the advice of knee specialist Bertrand Cottet, who the player recently visited in Lyon.

Barcelona have extended young prospect Alex Collado's contract until June 2023.

The 21-year-old is the captain of Barca's B team, having joined the famed La Masia youth set-up as an under-10.

Barca exercised an option in Collado's deal to keep the attacking midfielder at Camp Nou for another two years.

Collado, who made his first-team debut against Celta Vigo in 2019, when Ernesto Valverde was at the helm.

He has featured 77 times for the B team, scoring 16 goals, and will hope to play his way into Ronald Koeman's plans.

Barcelona target Sergio Aguero still has much to offer at the highest level, according to former Manchester City winger Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Aguero and City announced this week that the 32-year-old will be leaving at the end of the season after 10 glorious years.

The striker is out of contract at the end of a 2020-21 campaign City hope can end with a famous quadruple.

Barcelona have long been linked with a move to Aguero and are seen as favourites for his signature.

A switch to play in MLS has also been mooted but Wright-Phillips thinks it would be too soon for the Argentina star to make that step.

"For me, it would definitely be a bigger club [than one in MLS] - I don't think he'll go to the States just yet," Wright-Phillips told Stats Perform News when asked about Aguero's future.

"One hundred per cent, if he stays fit he's got a lot more to give. He still looks powerful, he still looks hungry.

"The games that I've watched that he's come on, he's made some excellent runs, and they didn't really get him the ball in those positions. 

"He's still got a lot to give, and I think he enjoys it. I don't see him sailing off to America just yet.

"I think [his future] kind of depends on how this season goes. 

"He's still in with a chance to win a Champions League medal, which if anyone deserves it, especially as a City player, it should be him. 

"That would just finish his career perfectly as a City player to win everything."

Injuries have restricted Aguero to only five starts across all competitions this season, but he is hoping to play a key part in the run-in before departing.

City have been linked with the likes of Erling Haaland and Harry Kane to replace Aguero, with Gabriel Jesus being the other main striker still at the club.

Wright-Phillips added: "To be honest, I was surprised [about the announcement].

"But when you get to a player like that, and he's getting old in football terms, he has not played probably as much as he wanted because of injuries or another reason that could have happened. 

"In his head he's probably just thinking he wants to play football. In a way I could kind of see it happening, but I'm devastated about it at the same time.

"If you look at his stats in general. He's scored I think 181 goals in the Premier League for City. He's got 257 goals for City in total. So he's a record breaker and you're always going to miss somebody like that. 

"As a fan it's devastating, you want to keep those players until they retire, and be selfish and not let anybody have them. But it's football isn't it, and sadly it always comes to an end."

Wright-Phillips was asked where Aguero ranked among all-time Premier League strikers, a debate that has attracted a host of opinions since the announcement.

The former England international added: "If you go on the stats, I would possibly put him in the top five and that's hard. 

"There have been so many amazing and world-class players with elite talent who are in the record books we're talking about. 

"The goals that he's scored, the one that stands out, the one that people always talk about in the game against QPR. It had to be him that scored it. 

"He was most probably the only person that would have scored that goal. Everything just worked out perfectly. 

"There where seasons when he didn't play all that much, he was injured, but he was still in the race for the golden boot and that says a lot for a striker. 

"He very rarely had purple patches or going so many games without scoring, until like this season when he's played hardly anything."

Manchester City will turn to Harry Kane if they cannot land Erling Haaland.

It is widely expected City will go hard to sign the Norway striker, who is being pursued by numerous big clubs.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea are all interested in the Borussia Dortmund man.

 

TOP STORY - KANE IN CITY'S SIGHTS

The Times reports that if City fail to win the race for Haaland's signature they will consider making an offer for Tottenham talisman Kane.

Kane is seven years older than Haaland but has a proven Premier League goal scoring record.

City have already confirmed Sergio Aguero's exit at the end of the season and are in the market to bolster their forward ranks.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail is reporting that City's main priorities in the transfer market are to sign Haaland and Aston Villa playmaker Jack Grealish, as they turn to a younger generation of talent. The duo are expected to cost £200 million.

- Football Insider has reported Lionel Messi has requested FC Barcelona sign countryman Aguero as part of his own negotiations to stay with the Catalans. Mundo Deportivo claims Aguero is not a priority signing for Barca, with Memphis Depay, Romelu Lukaku and Haaland top of the list.

- Gianluigi Donnarumma has been linked with a host of big clubs and Sky Sport Italia are reporting that contract talks with AC Milan are at a standstill. Milan are allegedly offering €7million per-year deal but the goalkeeper wants more.

- Voetbalkrant are reporting Southampton are interested in Anderlecht's teenage defender Marco Kana.

- Ex-Borussia Dortmund and Hertha Berlin coach Lucien Favre is interested in becoming Celtic's new coach, according to the Daily Mail.

- Fichajes reports Leeds United's Rodrigo is unhappy in England and wants to return to Spain, with Real Betis and Sevilla in the mix.

Sergio Aguero can lay claim to being the greatest striker in Premier League history, according to former Manchester City team-mate Richard Dunne.

The Argentina international confirmed on Monday that he would leave City when his contract expires at the end of this season, bringing an end to his 10-year spell with the club.

Aguero joined from Atletico Madrid in 2011 and has established himself as a City legend, his 257 goals representing a club record.

He has won four Premier League titles, one FA Cup and five EFL Cups at City, with a fifth top-flight title on the horizon this term and silverware still up for grabs domestically and in the Champions League.

With Aguero's stunning goal haul having come in 384 games, Dunne put the 32-year-old top of his all-time list of Premier League forwards for his remarkable consistency.

"I don't think you'd ever put him behind anybody," the former City defender told Stats Perform News.

"I think the way that he plays, all them strikers we speak about historically have scored a lot of goals, all different types of players.

"I certainly wouldn't put Aguero behind any of them, I think he's a player who could have played in any team, in any era or generation.

"It all comes down to who's your favourite, who's your preferred sort of striker. There's plenty who will say Aguero is the best – his goalscoring ratio is fantastic.

"He's been a bit unfortunate, because he tended to miss little periods of every season, but always managed to get over the 20 goals.

"He was someone that you could just rely on massively. Someone who when you'd go into a big game, and you need the goals, he's a name that you would go, he's starting because he's just incredible."

Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak revealed a statue of Aguero has already been commissioned to stand alongside those of his former team-mates, David Silva and Vincent Kompany, outside the Etihad Stadium.

Dunne said that would be a fitting tribute for a player whose impending departure from City is likely to have put a host of big clubs on high alert, with the Irishman tipping him to join compatriot Lionel Messi at Barcelona.

"I'd imagine there'd be loads of interested parties," said Dunne. "Teams at the top end of European football, will still believe that they can get another couple of seasons out of Aguero.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see him go to Barcelona. He obviously seems to be close friends with Messi as well. It would be a nice fit for the pair of them."

Aguero's glittering legacy has at its centre the last-gasp goal he scored against Queens Park Rangers to secure a 3-2 win and with it City's first Premier League title in 2012. 

Mino Raiola believes he may have been too cautious by moving his star client Erling Haaland to Borussia Dortmund.

The 20-year-old sensation joined Dortmund from Salzburg in January 2020 and has been on a goalscoring frenzy ever since.

Dortmund have reportedly set a €180million price tag for Haaland, with Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Real Madrid all expected to compete for his signature.

With a reported release clause in the striker's contract from 2022, clubs will need to meet Dortmund's demands if they wish to sign Haaland a year earlier than that.

Raiola believes the form Haaland has shown in Dortmund colours proves he could have moved directly to one of the continent's biggest clubs.

"With Haaland, everybody was wrong," the super agent told The Athletic.

"He did things much quicker than everybody imagined. Haaland is in front of his own development. He is ahead of his own schedule. 

"Maybe I was too careful when I said: 'Oh no, let's move to Dortmund instead of I-don't-know-where.

"This boy — I'm 100 per cent convinced and everybody's convinced — can move to any club, wherever he wants, already on this level. 

"And he could have done that last year.

"But maybe last year there were still teams [saying], 'Oh, he was in Red Bull (Salzburg), can he do it in another club?'.

"He is quicker than his own prediction. So yeah, Haaland is the talk of the town."

Raiola insisted it was not completely certain that Haaland will leave Dortmund at the end of the season and opened up on the decision for him not to join United.

The Norway forward has scored 21 goals in as many Bundesliga games this season, adding another 10 from six in the Champions League, a competition where he tops the scoring charts.

United, meanwhile, are still searching for a long-term solution at the number nine position despite bringing in Edinson Cavani on a free transfer last year.

"There was no fall-out between me and [United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward," added Raiola.

"I do not know if Manchester United are briefing this but if they are then they are covering their own loss and that I find strange and disappointing.

"It was just a normal negotiation and the player has chosen a different path.  

"If they want to blame someone then, fine, blame me but the player is happy. He has made his choice and we went through a normal process.

"This is a moment of waiting and seeing what is in the best interest of the player. 

"Sometimes the best interest of the player is not to move when everybody says he has to move.

"And sometimes it is in the best interest of the player to move when everybody says he has to stay. So we will see what happens."

Football throws up so many twists, turns and scenarios. Thanks to COVID-19, Spanish football will dish up something truly unique in April.

Two Copa del Rey finals will take place in the space of a fortnight after the 2020 decider was postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Athletic Bilbao front and centre.

Athletic will face rivals Real Sociedad in the mouthwatering rescheduled final on April 3 before going head-to-head with Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the 2021 showpiece on April 17.

Unfortunately, fans are barred from attending 'Derbi Vasco' in Seville, one of Spain's most famous rivalries as the Basque region is split between Athletic and La Real.

But it still represents a mammoth occasion in the inter-city rivalry, with Athletic – spearheaded by captain Iker Muniain, Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia – eyeing their first Copa del Rey title since 1983-84.

Benat was part of Athletic's run to the 2020 final, scoring in the first round and featuring in the last 16, before leaving San Mames for the A-League's newest team in Australia – Macarthur FC.

"Two finals are important, but Real Sociedad one is a derby and you always want to win whether it is a cup final or not," the 34-year-old, who spent seven years at Athletic before departing in 2020 but remains in contact with his former team-mates, told Stats Perform News.

"Derbies are special. But also, the Barcelona game will be nice and they will try to win."

Benat – a four-time Spain international having initially emerged from Athletic's youth team in 2005 – added: "The city of Bilbao comes along with the team in these days. The supporters are always there with Athletic. The truth is the entire city of Bilbao and the province of Bizkaia is full of red and white and they support a lot.

"The pity is they cannot attend to the game for the pandemic of COVID."

Benat's journey to Australia has seen him reunite with former Athletic team-mate Markel Susaeta in Sydney.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The 33-year-old Spanish winger wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta is no stranger to the Basque derby – he scored a brace in Athletic's 2-0 LaLiga win over La Real in 2012.

"It's clear that now is a big moment for Basque football," Susaeta, who will watch the final alongside Benat in the early hours of Saturday morning in Australia, said.

"Two finals is not normal, the situation is not normal. Athletic have a great opportunity to win a big title.

"In these matches, the emotion and intensity are very special. The wait is very long for the matches," Susaeta – part of the Athletic sides that were Copa del Rey runners-up in 2009, 2012 and 2015, said. "Athletic have been waiting for months. They are very excited. It's very difficult to control the emotions but it's a match all players want to play."

He added: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important that final. But there are two finals. I think the derby of Real Sociedad is more important.

"For Athletic, anyone can make the difference. Now they are playing well. In attack, they are creating more chances than before. They are in good condition for the finals."

Despite a change in the dugout, Athletic have already claimed silverware in 2020-21.

Marcelino replaced Gaizka Garitano in January, and he sensationally guided Athletic to a victory over Barca in the Supercopa de Espana final later that month.

Benat said: "Athletic were okay with Garitano, but they were not able to have a positive run to jump up in the table. And Marcelino has given extra confident to the players.

"The players trust him and you can see they gained confidence.

"I think Athletic have more experience lately. They have played some finals and they can have more experience, but I do think Athletic is a balanced team. They can play with or without ball and they can do great things with or without ball."

But one-time Spain international Susaeta, who reached the Europa League final with Los Leones under Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, is aware just how tough it is for Athletic to compete for trophies.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world," Susaeta added. "To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Timo Werner only joined Chelsea at the start of the season, but could he leave Stamford Bridge?

Premier League giants Chelsea are among the clubs interested in Erling Haaland.

But reports claim Chelsea are not prepared to sanction a Werner exit.

 

TOP STORY – NO CHELSEA EXIT FOR WERNER

Chelsea are not planning on selling Timo Werner as they eye Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, according to Telegraph.

Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea have been heavily linked with Haaland, who is also being targeted by Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

But Chelsea are against the idea of parting with Werner or using the German forward in a deal to prise Haaland to Stamford Bridge after one season in London.

 

ROUND-UP

Barca are eyeing a move for Sergio Aguero after City announced their all-time leading goalscorer will leave the club on a free transfer at season's end, claims Fabrizio Romano. Inter, Chelsea and PSG have also been linked.

- Gazzetta dello Sport reports Kalidou Koulibaly is likely to leave Napoli at the end of the season. Koulibaly has been linked with United, PSG and Bayern Munich previously.

- While a Koulibaly departure is on the cards, could legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon arrive? Gazzetta dello Sport claims Napoli are interested in the Juventus great, who is searching for regular football.

Cristiano Ronaldo will decide his future before May, according to Tuttosport. The Juventus superstar has been linked with former clubs Madrid and United, as well as PSG.

- Fiorentina's Dusan Vlahovic, Torino captain Andrea Belotti, PSV's Donyell Malen, AZ's Myron Boadu and Celtic star Odsonne Edouard are on Milan's shortlist of strikers in the transfer window, reports Calciomercato.

- The Athletic and other outlets claim Liverpool are nearing a deal to sign RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate. Leipzig sporting director Markus Krosche played down the possible transfer in an interview with Stats Perform News.

Fabian Ruiz insisted he is "very happy" at Napoli amid links with Atletico Madrid and LaLiga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Napoli and Spain star Fabian has repeatedly been tipped to return to his homeland, where Atletico, Madrid and Barca are reportedly interested.

Fabian – contracted to Serie A side Napoli until 2023 – has starred in Italy since arriving from Real Betis in 2018.

Amid speculation over his future, Fabian, who is on international duty with Spain for their World Cup qualifiers, told reporters: "I'm very happy at Napoli and I have two more years contract left there.

"Now I'm just focused on the next game on Wednesday as it will be very tough."

Fabian, 24, added: "About LaLiga, without a doubt it is one of the most competitive leagues in the world as there are many great players and teams.

"However, every player just tries to do the best for his own future. Sometimes you have to move abroad but it does not mean those leagues are better. The players are just interested in their happiness and work, so they make their own decisions.

"I can't say which one is better but I'm sure LaLiga is one of the three best leagues in the world."

Fabian has scored once and supplied one assist for Gennaro Gattuso's Napoli in Serie A this season.

 

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