Ronald Koeman's 14-month spell in charge of Barcelona came to an end on Wednesday following another humbling defeat.

Barca fell 1-0 at Rayo Vallecano, fresh on the back of losing to fierce rivals Real Madrid, and find themselves ninth in LaLiga with 10 games played. 

The Dutchman departs Camp Nou with a win percentage of 58.21 across a 67-game tenure that provided more negatives than positives.

Here, Stats Perform picks out a few of the highs and lows from Koeman's reign, which coincided with the most difficult off-field period in the club's history.

MESSI'S DEPARTURE

When looking backing on Koeman's time at Barcelona in years to come, it will be best remembered as the period in which the Blaugrana were having to adapt to life without all-time leading goalscorer Lionel Messi.

Years of financial mismanagement predating Koeman's arrival in August 2020 meant Barca were unable to tie Messi down to a new deal and he left for Paris Saint-Germain shortly before the start of the 2021-22 campaign.

Sergio Aguero arrived but it was always going to take considerable time to replace a player that had scored 672 goals and provided 265 assists across 778 games. So it proved, with Barca's goalscoring problems laid bare this term.

CLASSICO WOES

While the loss to Rayo proved to be the final straw for Koeman, there had been growing talk that he would be on his way out regardless following Sunday's 2-1 Clasico defeat to Madrid.

Barca simply failed to turn up against their biggest rivals – and not for the first time given it was their fourth successive loss to Madrid in all competitions, making it their worst such run in the fixture since 1965.

Koeman is only the second manager in LaLiga history to lose his first three Clasicos, after Patrick O'Connell between 1935 and 1940, and that latest loss was not taken well by Barca supporters. The former Netherlands boss had his car mobbed by a crowd of disgruntled fans as he attempted to depart Camp Nou.

EUROPEAN HUMBLINGS

Barca's on-field struggles were not limited to LaLiga, either, as they made a historically bad start to this season's Champions League campaign with 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica.

Never before had they lost their opening two games in the competition and, while they did just about recover with a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev last time out, whoever succeeds Koeman still has plenty of work on their hands to advance from the group.

Indeed, before that win over Dynamo, Barca had lost four and drawn one of their last five games in the Champions League, having also lost to Juventus in the final game of their group campaign last term before losing to PSG over two legs in the last 16.

COPA TRIUMPH EASES PAIN 

Exiting the Champions League in the first knockout round last season was one of a number of disappointments for Barca in their only full season under Koeman.

Barca finished the LaLiga season in third, seven points behind champions Atletico Madrid, and also lost to Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana in dramatic circumstances.

But Koeman did win one trophy at Camp Nou thanks to success in the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. After overturning a two-goal first-leg deficit against Sevilla in the semi-finals, Barca exacted revenge on Bilbao in the final with a 4-0 win.

That made ex-Valencia head coach Koeman the second manager after Luis Enrique to win his first two Copa del Rey finals this century.

 

A NEW DAWN

Koeman will rightly point out that he had to operate with one hand tied behind his back due to Barca's financial difficulties, with Antoine Griezmann following Messi out of the door in the most recent transfer window.

Barcelona's squad became substantially weaker as a result, though it did at least present a chance to bring in some new blood. Koeman has brought the average age of the side down to 25.5, ranking Barca as the third-youngest team in LaLiga this season.

Ansu Fati's development may have been stunted by knee injury issues, which again kept him out of the Rayo loss, but the club's new number 10 has been given a firm footing to potentially succeed all-time great Messi as the face of Barca going forward.

Pedri and Gavi have also made a big impact under Koeman, the latter overtaking his team-mate to become the youngest player to start an El Clasico this century last weekend at the age of 17 years and 80 days. 

It will be those players, and not Koeman, who will attempt to return the club to former glories.

Lionel Messi is leaving Barcelona after failing to come to agreement on a deal that would fit within LaLiga's salary restrictions.

Although a new contract was expected, with the Blaugrana captain a free agent since the end of last season, he is now departing his only club.

It means Messi will not add to a remarkable haul of 672 goals in all competitions as a Barca player.

Of course, the 34-year-old is not only a great goalscorer but a scorer of great goals, meaning Stats Perform had quite the selection to choose from when picking out a chronological top 10 from his Barca collection.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already seen one goal wrongly ruled out for offside – an audacious chip from the edge of the box – Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's scooped pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for one of Europe's great clubs.

Malaga (H): March 22, 2009

Thierry Henry's favourite goal by Messi during their time playing together for Barca. Why not let the France great take up the story? "It defied logic what he did," Henry said in the 'Take the Ball, Pass the Ball' documentary. "There's a diagonal ball and he controls it on his chest. He runs full speed, then the first player goes and the second player is just behind. If he takes another step, that player will clear the ball." A shimmy of the body and deft touch later – in the blink of an eye – Messi stabbed into the top corner to conclude a moment of 100-miles-per-hour brilliance.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, this strike against Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in a goal that began when he won the ball from a tackle at halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling into the far corner, leaving coach Pep Guardiola speechless.

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

At the height of the Clasico rivalry between Guardiola's Barca and Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the two teams met four times in three different competitions in less than a month. The league meeting ended in a draw and Madrid won the Copa del Rey final, but Barca triumphed in the Champions League semi-final with a 3-1 aggregate win. The first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, an ill-tempered affair to say the least, saw Messi make it 2-0 by bursting beyond four attempted challenges and slotting past Iker Casillas, all in the space of around five seconds.

Athletic Bilbao (A): April 27, 2013

Barca were in the midst of a Champions League semi-final shellacking from Bayern when they arrived at San Mames. A goal down in a match that would eventually finish 2-2, Messi received possession from Thiago Alcantara, twisted past Mikel San Jose, Carlos Gurpegui and Ander Herrera with minimal space in which to operate before nonchalantly side-footing home from just inside the penalty area.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Guardiola returned to Camp Nou with a Bayern side struggling with injury problems. They kept Barca at bay until the 77th minute of this Champions League semi-final first leg, when Messi finally struck. It was his second goal that earns a place in this list, though: collecting Ivan Rakitic's pass, a simple-looking shimmy left Jerome Boateng on his backside before he chipped Manuel Neuer with his weaker foot.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in stoppage time gave Jordi Alba the chance to square to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Rarely has a hat-trick been completed in finer fashion. Messi's two goals had helped Barca to a 3-1 lead at the Benito Villamarin, before he passed to Rakitic, ran onto the return ball and sent a first-time chip over goalkeeper Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from just inside the box. It was a sublime effort that even had the home fans on their feet applauding – something Messi himself admitted he had not experienced before.

Liverpool (H): May 1, 2019

Over the past few years, Messi has mastered the art of free-kick taking, with the skill being one of few to elude him in his younger days. Liverpool held their own for long periods at Camp Nou but goals from Luis Suarez and Messi gave the hosts breathing space. Jurgen Klopp's side then had to bow to greatness when, after being brought down by Fabinho, Barca's talisman swept an unstoppable 30-yard effort into the top corner. Barcelona would incredibly blow their 3-0 first-leg advantage, however, losing 4-0 at Anfield as Liverpool reached the Champions League final.

Atletico Madrid (A): December 1, 2019

It was goalless in the 86th minute at the Wanda Metropolitano when Messi collected the ball on the right flank, 10 yards inside the Atletico half. Those famous feet began to shuffle with purpose, and although Atletico knew what Messi had in mind, they were powerless to resist the execution of his plan. Messi surged on, playing the ball to Suarez on the edge of the penalty area before taking the return pass and cracking a brilliant 20-yard shot into the bottom left corner of Jan Oblak's goal. A winner, and one of the highest class.

Antoine Griezmann accepts Lionel Messi's future is "not in our hands" but hopes Barcelona's inspirational captain can be convinced to remain at Camp Nou.

Messi was in typically brilliant form with a brace as Barca hammered Athletic Bilbao 4-0 to win the Copa del Rey on Saturday, the Blaugrana's first trophy under Ronald Koeman.

Griezmann had started the rout with the opening goal on the hour, with Frenkie de Jong doubling Barca's lead.

Messi's future at Los Cules, where he is the club's all-time leading goalscorer, remains the subject of debate with his contract up in June and Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain still rumoured to be interested in putting together a lucrative deal for the Argentina great.

Newly-re-elected president Joan Laporta spoke of his hope that Messi, who tried to engineer a move before the start of the campaign, will stay put and Griezmann echoed those sentiments.

"I think he's good here, we'll see what happens," Griezmann said in quotes reported by L'Equipe.

"It is not in our hands.  It is he who will decide, but we are proud and happy of the have with us and hope he will stay."

Griezmann joined Barca from Atletico Madrid in a big-money deal ahead of the 2019-2020 campaign. The Copa triumph represents the first trophy since he joined Barca but LaLiga success remains a realistic prospect, with only two points separating Koeman's third-placed side and leaders Atletico Madrid.

"I am very happy and very proud," he added. "I have been in the Spanish league for 10 years and I had not won the Copa del Rey.

"It's a relief, for the club and for me too, he said. There have been ups and downs since I arrived, sometimes negative comments, sometimes unfair, but it's like I have always worked and with the team we were focused on this game since we knew each other in the final."

Ronald Koeman has revelled in his first title as Barcelona head coach but set his sights on clinching the LaLiga crown.

Barcelona lifted the Copa del Rey with a 4-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in Saturday's final, marking the Dutchman's first title since taking over at Camp Nou in August.

The Catalans lost the Supercopa final to Bilbao in January and exited the Champions League in the last-16 to Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca are firmly in contention in the league, sitting third, two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid in a three-horse race with Real Madrid too.

"To win a title is important for me," Koeman said. "Despite the changes at the club and the young players, at Barca you have to always fight for trophies.

"We have the first one and now we are going to fight to the last game in La Liga."

Saturday's victory was earned with four second-half goals, with Antoine Grizemann breaking the deadlock on the hour mark.

Frenkie de Jong doubled their advantage on 63 minutes, before a Lionel Messi rounded out an emphatic win which Koeman said they deserved.

"A result like this is not normal, but we deserved the cup," Koeman said.

"It took us a bit to score, but we had chances. Our possession has been good and after 1-0 we have dominated the game with great football in every way."

The 58-year-old former Netherlands coach also heaped praise on De Jong and Messi for their leading role.

"De Jong and Messi are great players: Leo has been proving for so many years that he is the best in the world, he has returned to being effective, but we must also highlight Frenkie and the whole team," Koeman said.

"We have been at an extraordinary level. We deserve this cup."

Lionel Messi hailed the special achievement of captaining Barcelona to another trophy as president Joan Laporta backed the superstar forward to sign a new deal with the club.

The 33-year-old scored twice in Saturday's 4-0 Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao after Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong had given Barca a two-goal lead.

With that double, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner made it a record nine goals in 10 appearances in the final of the competition to overtake Athletic great Telmo Zarra.

He has now scored the fourth most goals ever in the competition (56), meanwhile, behind Guillermo Gorostiza (64), Jose Samitier (69) and Zarra (81).

Messi's future remains a hot topic of debate with his contract due to expire at the end of the season, potentially making this seventh Copa triumph his last for the Catalan giants.

Barca were made to wait until the hour mark to find a way past opposition goalkeeper Unai Simon, but Messi is glad his side's patient approach to breaking down Athletic paid off.

"It's nice to lift a title. It's a very happy day for this group," Messi said. "It is very special to be the captain of this club. It is a very special cup for me to lift.

"We knew Athletic played this way, with a solid 4-4-2. We had patience with the ball and created spaces. We moved a lot in the first half and I think they fell in the second half.

"Not being able to celebrate it with our people, it's a shame. The situation is what we have to live in. The cups are always special and people enjoy them a lot."

Barca have enjoyed an upturn in form since the turn of the year and are two points off top spot in LaLiga, despite defeat to Real Madrid in last week's Clasico.

"It was difficult for us in the first half of the year. We lost a lot of silly points," Messi added. 

"Then we became strong, very good, and we got into the title fight. Last week, unfortunately, we couldn't get a good result from the Clasico."

Messi, who has now hit 30 or more goals for Barca in 13 successive seasons, has been touted as a possible target for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

However, recently elected club president Laporta remains confident that the Argentina international can be tempted to stay at Camp Nou beyond the end of this season.

"Leo is the best in the world, he is deeply rooted in the club," Laporta said. "I am convinced that he wants to stay and we will do everything in our power to make him stay.

"Today we have seen that he is supported by a great team."

The victory at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja marked the first piece of silverware won by Koeman since being appointed by Barcelona last August.

And like Laporta, Koeman is hopeful Barca's improved performances in 2021 will be enough to persuade Messi to put pen to paper on fresh terms.

"I hope it is not the last Messi's cup match with us, we want him to continue with us," Koeman said at his post-match news conference.

"You never know if it has been Leo's last final because it is he who must decide. As the president says, we will do our best to make him stay. 

"He has proven, once again, to be the best in the world. With enormous effectiveness, he has led the team."

It was all that was missing: a Lionel Messi goal. The rest of Saturday's Copa del Rey final was following a predictable, popular script.

Barcelona were winning. Athletic Bilbao were losing. Again.

For the second time this month, for the sixth time in succession, the final was a step too far for poor Athletic.

No club have won the Copa more times than Barca - this their 31st triumph - but for a long time that was a table topped by the team from Bilbao.

Athletic sit second on the list, with 23 wins, but none after 1983-84.

They beat Barca in the 1984 final at the Santiago Bernabeu and there has been nothing but misery for Athletic in their favourite competition ever since.

April 2021, with two opportunities, was surely the time for that run to end. But first they lost 1-0 to rivals Real Sociedad, and then, on Saturday, 4-0 to Barca. Again.

The run of six finals without a win is a new record, and four of the defeats have come at the hands of the Blaugrana.

And Messi had scored in each of the prior three.

 

Indeed, the Barca legend's very first final goal came against Athletic in 2009.

Messi played in Samuel Eto'o, saw his shot blocked and ran onto the rebound to put Pep Guardiola's side in front. They had trailed in that match and won 4-1, the first act of a stunning treble complete.

Three years later, the great number 10 was at it again.

He took Andres Iniesta's pass in his stride and rammed a right-footed finish into the roof of the net from a tight angle, the second of three Barca goals in the opening 25 minutes. A 3-0 win.

And then in 2015, perhaps Messi's best final performance of all. He scored twice and the first was one of the great goals.

The Barca forward took up possession near halfway on the left, invited in three Athletic defenders and then beat them all. Into the box he ran, skipping inside one last challenge before firing in.

So while losing to Barca - again - felt familiar for Athletic in Seville, keeping Messi at bay heading into the final quarter of the match did not.

 

Even then, from the fringes, Messi had still had a say in proceedings.

Following a tense first half in which the best opening saw Frenkie de Jong hit the post from Messi's pass, the Argentina international found his Netherlands counterpart again 15 minutes after the restart.

De Jong crossed and Antoine Griezmann, earlier denied from a similar position by the briefly inspired Unai Simon, made no mistake.

The second goal came from the other side. Jordi Alba crossed and Messi moved towards the ball, but it instead reached De Jong in the centre, stooping to nod into the net.

Messi had entered the match with 29 goals in 33 finals. His Copa record stood at seven in nine. With Athletic now all at sea, there was time left to boost those fantastic figures further.

Within five minutes of De Jong's header the chance came. Messi calmly controlled inside the area, created a yard of space and picked out the bottom-left corner with a gentle effort.

It was certainly a prettier goal than his next as Alba's cutback was sent goalwards and Simon, finally reading the script again, let Barca's fourth and Messi's second slip through his fingers - much like Athletic's hopes. Again.

Having helped their captain to a pair of goals to go away with, Barca's players made sure to secure souvenirs of their own as Messi posed for pictures with each of them alongside the Copa.

There is still a title to fight for in LaLiga before his contract expires at the end of the season and the rumour mill reopens for business, but this might have been Messi's last Barca showpiece.

On the periphery for over an hour, he wound up with a game-high six shots, three on target and two goals. If this was the end, Messi's final final, it was a fitting finish.

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona turned on the style in the second half to beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in Saturday's Copa del Rey final and win their first silverware under Ronald Koeman.

Barca were beaten 3-2 by Athletic in January's Supercopa de Espana final and they were kept at bay by the Basque club for an hour in this latest encounter at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja.

But Frenkie de Jong set up Antoine Griezmann for the crucial breakthrough goal and added the second himself three minutes later, before Messi took over with a couple of quickfire strikes as Barca made it a record-extending 31st Copa del Rey triumph.

It means yet more heartbreak for Athletic, though, after they were beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad in the delayed 2019-20 final two weeks ago.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta is "convinced" Lionel Messi will sign a new contract to stay with the LaLiga giants.

Messi is out of contract at the end of the season and the 33-year-old's future with Barca is far from certain amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

Laporta remains determined to re-sign Messi, who has spent his entire senior career at Camp Nou.

As Barca prepare for Saturday's Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, Laporta was asked about the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

"Everything is progressing adequately," Laporta told Deportes Cuatro.

"I will do everything within the club's capabilities to get him to stay. That's what we're doing. Messi is motivated.

"He is an extraordinary person and I am convinced that he will want to continue at Barca."

Messi has scored a league-high 23 goals and supplied eight assists in 28 LaLiga appearances for Barca this season.

In total, Messi has netted 29 goals across all competitions in 2020-21.

A bemused Ronald Koeman has described the constant speculation over his future as Barcelona head coach as "a little bit strange". 

It has been a tumultuous debut season for the former Netherlands boss, who arrived at Camp Nou on a two-year contract in August. 

First up, he had to manage the fallout from Lionel Messi's ultimately unsuccessful transfer request ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. 

A failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment, but a superb recent run in LaLiga has put them into title contention. 

They did suffer a first defeat since early December against Real Madrid in El Clasico last weekend, but they are just two points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid with eight games remaining. 

Up next is Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday and, speaking at a pre-match media conference, a clearly exasperated Koeman did not hold back when asked if failure to secure the trophy would result in his dismissal. 

"If you would like to hear my opinion about this, it's a little bit strange that I need to answer questions like this," he told reporters. 

"We had a run of 19 games without losing, we lose one match and I need to talk about my future. 

"Maybe I need to accept this, but I don't agree. You have to do your job and talk to people in the club. I have one more year of my contract. 

"I know before the game what will happen if we win and if we don't win. I have to accept it. I took this job as a coach and I know there's a big pressure and I can handle that. Sometimes it's a little bit strange."

Despite speculation that Koeman may not start next season as Barca boss, the club's new president Joan Laporta did offer public support to Koeman over his future after his victory in last month's election. 

Asked if he needs Laporta's backing again following the defeat to Madrid, Koeman said: "I don't need this. We have spoken and he has shown me his confidence.

"If someone writes that the coach's future is at risk, the president doesn't have to respond to that by showing confidence.

"I'm the first to know what Laporta thinks. At this club you need to win trophies, and despite the changes and the economic situation at the club, we're here at a final and we want to win it; speculation isn't important."

This will be the fourth meeting between the sides this season, with Barca winning both LaLiga clashes and Athletic securing a dramatic 3-2 triumph in the Supercopa de Espana in January. 

Pep Guardiola had a simple message for the fans after becoming Barcelona head coach in 2008: "Fasten your seatbelts."

In April 2011, the Catalan press recalled that promise of excitement as they previewed a once-in-a-generation event: four matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, with three trophies at stake, in 17 days. A Clasico World Series. A defining run of fixtures where winning was everything and losing was unimaginable, with each side dreaming of celebrating a treble and terrified of watching the other do the same.

More like fasten your bandoliers. This was war.

On one side, the Barca of Guardiola, the man taking the coaching world by storm in his first senior post-playing job. A team built from La Masia, boasting some of the academy's greatest ever products: Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi. With the ball on their 'carousel', they were the pinnacle of possession-based attacking play, proof that technical accomplishment could triumph over brute force. They were chasing a second treble in three seasons, and under Guardiola, they had never lost a final.

It could be said Madrid were afraid of this new Barca, and in their fear, they made a deal with the devil. In came Jose Mourinho, the man whose Inter thwarted Barca's attempts to play a Champions League final at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2010. His task was not so much to knock the Catalans off their perch, but to raze the perch to the ground. A league champion in Portugal, England and Italy, the mastermind of Inter's historic treble, with two of history's most expensive signings in Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka at his disposal, Mourinho's task was clear: stop Barca at all costs.

For some, this went beyond the two best teams in the world going head-to-head for trophies. This was a meeting of minds, a clash of styles, a fight for football's very soul. And so, in the spring of 2011, the battle lines were drawn. On April 16, Barca were to host Madrid in La Liga. Four days later, they would meet neutrally at Valencia's Mestalla in the Copa del Rey final. Then came the biggest of all: a two-legged Champions League semi-final for the right to face Manchester United at Wembley.

Seven goals, 167 fouls, 24 yellow cards and four reds later, Barca emerged as Champions League finalists and shoo-ins for the La Liga title. Madrid held the Copa del Rey.

And neither team, nor coach, would ever be quite the same again.

April 16, 2011: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona

The opening skirmish.

With Barca leading La Liga by eight points heading into the match, having won 26 and drawn three of their previous 29 top-flight games, few realistically believed a defeat would see them throw away the title. This was more of a warm-up act for what was to come, and the chance for Madrid – and Mourinho – to prove they had learned from the reverse fixture: a 5-0 evisceration at Camp Nou in November.

Certainly, there were changes. Madrid had just 33 per cent of the ball in the first game and that dropped to 24 per cent here, as they completed 234 passes to Barca's 791.

And yet they carried a much greater threat than before: They had more shots than Barca (13-11) and six on target, both the most they managed in any Clasico that term. Even after going a goal and a man down – Messi scoring a penalty after Raul Albiol was sent off for fouling David Villa – they salvaged a point after Ronaldo buried a spot-kick of his own.

Mourinho was starting to make his mark. Madrid committed 22 fouls, with Pepe accounting for five of them. Only Lassana Diarra conceded more free kicks in any of the four matches. There were seven bookings, five of them for Barca, whose frustrations with the Madrid approach were summed up neatly when Messi booted the ball into the stands. Only three players created more than one goalscoring chance: Xavi, Angel Di Maria… and Pepe.

For Mourinho, Albiol's red card was key. Although his side snatched a draw, they seemed at the mercy of the Barca circulation machine: 10 of Guardiola's players managed more than 30 passes, including substitute Seydou Keita, while only Sami Khedira (31) did so for Madrid. Xavi, who made 144 on his own, would average 139 per game across the four encounters.

"Eleven against 10 and it was practically mission impossible," said Mourinho. "Especially against a team that – with possession of the ball – are the best in the world."

The title race was out of Madrid's hands. However, in a one-off contest, things looked different…

 

April 20, 2011: Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid

"We knew that whoever scored first would win it," said Mourinho. "And so it proved."

Ronaldo's 42nd goal of the season, a towering header from Di Maria's cross, was enough to decide a cup final spanning 120 gruelling minutes in Valencia. It was Ronaldo and Mourinho's first Madrid trophy, Guardiola's first final defeat, and an end to his dreams of a second treble.

It was also a doubling-down by Mourinho on his pervading methods. Madrid allowed Barca 79 per cent of the ball with the Catalans' 901 passes nearly four times as many as their opponents managed. Concrete opportunities, again, were scarce: there were just four shots on target each from a total of 27.

This time, Barca got sucked into the fight. They committed 24 fouls, their most in any Clasico that season, with each side earning three bookings apiece, and Di Maria was sent off in the dying moments. Their more combative approach neither improved Barca's play nor disrupted Madrid further; however, Los Blancos created nine chances in the contest, only one fewer than Barca, despite yielding so much of the possession.

"Life is like that – you can't always win," Guardiola rued. "We can take them on over two games – we've just done that," goaded Mourinho. And the world waited for what would come next.

April 27, 2011: Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona

The drama started on the eve of the match when Guardiola finally snapped.

His rant at Mourinho, "the f****** boss," was his most public display of anger, his patience exhausted by his opponent's needling. The final straw had been Mourinho describing Pep as a unique coach "that criticises referees when they get decisions right".

In that explosive news conference delivered mostly to "Mourinho's camera", Guardiola promised: "Tomorrow, 8.45 p.m., we will take to the field and we will try to play football as best as possible."

One man certainly did.

Messi had struggled to exert huge influence in the first two games. He had only one shot on target in the cup final, for instance. He was harried, kicked and crowded out at the Santiago Bernabeu this time, and yet won only two free-kicks as Barca committed more fouls than their opponents for the first time. It seemed Mourinho's mind games were paying off.

This, perhaps foreshadowed in the pregame build-up involving their managers, was the most ill-tempered, poisonous game of the lot. There were three red cards shown: one to Barca substitute Jose Pinto, one to Pepe for a foul on Dani Alves, and one to Mourinho for his sarcastic praise of the officials. Again, though, Madrid's 10 men looked capable of salvaging a result, until Messi was unleashed at last. His first was a relative tap-in, a close-range finish from Ibrahim Afellay's cross. It is a goal that is easily forgotten due to what came after. Busquets rolled the ball into his path, and Messi was off – away from Diarra, away from Albiol, beyond Marcelo, before squeezing a low finish past Iker Casillas.

It was his 11th goal in 11 Champions League games, his 52nd of the season, and perhaps the greatest he has ever scored: for the occasion, the speed, the execution, the kicks that failed to stop him.

May 3, 2011: Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid

Everyone, it seemed, felt the tie was already over. Madrid decided to prioritise chasing Barca players over chasing the game, committing 30 fouls for the return of a single shot on target. At least nobody was sent off.

Gonzalo Higuain thought he had given Madrid the lead, but it was disallowed for a foul by Ronaldo in the build-up. Marcelo cancelled out Pedro's eventual opener, but it was Barca who went through – and Madrid who went apoplectic.

"We feel tricked by the officials," Casillas said afterwards.

"Next year, they might as well give the cup to Barcelona," complained Ronaldo.

Mourinho was facing possible punishment for suggesting referees favoured the Blaugrana, while both teams vowed to make official complaints to UEFA about the other.

The battle was done, the hostilities over (on the pitch, at least). Crucially, though, the events of these matches hardened Mourinho's resolve. "Now I have more willingness to continue in charge of Real Madrid for what this means," he said. "This jersey is white, and white now has more significance."

 

The aftermath

Over those two spectacular weeks, the teams shared two draws and one win apiece. Barca, though, were the victors: a third league title in a row and a second Champions League triumph under Guardiola easily made up for losing the Copa final.

Mourinho, however, would not lose the war.

These games, and the 5-4 two-legged Supercopa de Espana defeat in August – one made infamous by Mourinho poking Barca assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye – showed the Portuguese the way to conquer Spain: disrupt Barca and destroy the rest. His players seemed galvanised, and they proved it.

In 2010-11, Barca finished on 96 points, four ahead of Madrid. Interestingly, they only scored 95 goals to their rivals' 102, while conceding 12 goals fewer. They lost just two games to Madrid's four.

Mourinho's response was to develop Madrid not into a team impossible to beat, but one that could barely stop winning. Records tumbled in 2011-12: 32 victories from 38 games, 121 goals scored, 100 points accrued. His Faustian pact with Madrid had paid off, but those vitriolic two campaigns took their toll. He has had three times as many job changes as league titles in the decade since.

Barca also scored more that season: 114 times in the league overall, 50 of which came from Messi. Overall, though, their exceptional standards had slipped just enough. After three intense seasons under Guardiola and the brutality of El Clasico's rivalry, they just couldn't sustain it any longer. At the end of the season, Guardiola announced he was stepping down, admitting: "Four years is an eternity as Barca coach… I have nothing left."

Imanol Alguacil expressed his immense pride after Real Sociedad conquered Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao to win their first Copa del Rey title since 1987.

Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half penalty secured a 1-0 victory over Athletic on Saturday in what was the first ever final between the two great rivals in their current guises.

The rescheduled 2020 decider was played 350 days later than initially planned in Seville due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oyarzabal settled the first all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece since 1927 on an emotional night for head coach Imanol and La Real.

"As a manager, you can imagine I am very proud," Imanol told reporters. "I have a great feeling.

"This week, my uncle died from COVID. We received so many messages during these two weeks from all over Gipuzcoa.

"The suffering of my family, there are so many things. When I left yesterday, I was crying after receiving a video from my family members.

"There so many feelings. I am very happy, super proud to be the manager of this Real Sociedad that have made history, as we said yesterday.

"It would not have been possible without the support of the fans. Thanks to everybody."

"There so many emotions," he added. "I was in the third division with almost half of this squad four or five years ago fighting around the stadiums of Vizcaya.

"You can't imagine the emotion I can feel in this moment for being able to make the fans happy."

Oyarzabal has scored 89.5 per cent of his penalties taken for La Real in all competitions – only Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos (18) among LaLiga players has scored more penalties than him since the beginning of the 2018-19 season across all competitions (17, same as Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi).

"It's an incredible day," said a tearful Oyarzabal post-match.

"You remember everybody, all the people who would have loved to be here, people who have left us. This is for everyone, my family, my friends. It means everything."

It was another case of so close but yet so far for Athletic, who finished runners-up in the Copa del Rey for the fifth consecutive time, having also fallen short in 1985, 2009, 2012 and 2015.

Athletic equalled Madrid (five from 1918 to 1933) as the team to lose most consecutive finals in the competition's history, though Marcelino's men have the opportunity to snap that streak when they face Barca in the 2021 decider on April 17.

"I am not disappointed, because I was proud of the players I coach before the game, and I continue so. But obviously I am sad," head coach Marcelino said. "Especially, because we haven't been ourselves.

"When you far for your version, this can happen, the opponent in a specific action with not much superiority, although deserved overall, they win a title. So, we have to congratulate Real [Sociedad]. We have to assess calmy what we have to improve because we have one more option in 15 days."

Real Sociedad have won their first Copa del Rey since 1987 after Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half penalty secured a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in what was the first ever final between the two great rivals in their current guises.

Played 350 days later than initially scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic, La Cartuja in Seville played host to one of the most significant finals in the competition's history and La Real came out on top in the long-awaited encounter.

In what was the first all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece since 1927, it was perhaps fitting that someone who has played for both teams was central to the match's major moment of contention, as Inigo Martinez was sent off for the concession of a penalty, only to be hauled back on following a VAR check.

The former La Real captain's blushes were not completely spared, however, as Oyarzabal – wearing Los Txuri-Urdin's armband – dispatched the spot kick.

While Athletic desperately sought a late equaliser, Marcelino Garcia Toral's men lacked the invention to force extra-time, but they will have another bite at the cherry on April 16 when they face Barcelona in the 2020-21 final.

Establishing any form of control proved difficult for either side in a frenetic opening half that was exacerbated by the downpour in Seville.

It was not until the 33rd minute that either goalkeeper was forced into necessary action, as Athletic centre-back Martinez let fly from distance and saw Alex Remiro tip over in spectacular fashion – both players featuring against the teams whose academies they graduated from.

Athletic survived a scare at the other end soon after, with Yeray Alvarez managing to cut out Andoni Gorosabel's right-wing cross as Alexander Isak waited for a simple finish.

Martinez avoided conceding a penalty soon after the restart, with his handball deemed to be just outside the 18-yard box.

He did not get so lucky just past the hour, though, when Martinez clumsily tripped Portu as he looked to latch on to a throughball.

The red card flashed in his direction was soon overturned on review, but Oyarzabal was not as forgiving, lashing an emphatic penalty past the helpless Unai Simon.

There proved to be no way back for an Athletic side, who were generally toothless throughout.

Athletic Bilbao have long been a club unlike almost any other. It's fitting, then, that they are preparing for a cup final double-header never seen before.

The impact of coronavirus on the Spanish football schedule means Athletic will play in two Copa del Rey finals in two weeks. First, they will meet Basque rivals Real Sociedad in the delayed 2020 final on April 3; win that, and they'll be defending the trophy against Barcelona a fortnight later.

It could be a historic month for one of Spain's most prestigious clubs. One of three never to be relegated from the top flight – along with Barca and Real Madrid – Athletic have won eight league titles, 24 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. That collection includes the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

Yet Athletic have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January this year. The latter could not even be celebrated via a traditional trip down the Nervion on the Gabarra – where others say it with open-top busses, Athletic do so with a huge river-faring barge – as another occasion for fans was stolen by the pandemic.

The 2020 Copa final was pushed back this far to allow for the possibility of supporters attending in Seville, but that too won't be happening. Athletic must instead rely on an unseen but no less ardent backing from their absent fans, their loyalty undimmed by the distance from TV screens to La Cartuja.

Loyalty is one commodity Athletic have never lacked.

 

'IT'S A WARRIOR CLUB'

Athletic's first-team policy is renowned throughout the football world. For more than 100 years, they have only used players born in the region in the first team, the vast majority of them unearthed as unpolished gems in the cantera.

Iker Muniain, who will lead out the team as captain in the two finals, is one such example. He has been a fixture in the side since the age of 16, when he became their youngest debutant for 94 years in a Europa League qualifier in 2009 and, for much of those early years, he was viewed as one of the brightest prospects they had ever produced. He was still a teenager when he scored what proved to be the winning goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a Europa League match in 2012, when Athletic, coached by Marcelo Bielsa, so comprehensively outplayed the Red Devils that Alex Ferguson still remembers it as one of the toughest home European matches he ever faced.

Given his prodigious talent, some see Muniain's career as unfulfilled: no big move to a European giant, only a handful of Champions League appearances, and just two senior Spain caps seven years apart. A tally of 63 goals and 42 assists in all competitions means he only just makes the top 40 for goal involvements among LaLiga players since his debut, the same as Barca left-back Jordi Alba. But for Athletic, who award an annual prize to one-club men, 447 games by the age of 28 is something to celebrate. And if Muniain lifts the trophy after beating La Real, his story will become legend.

 

Muniain is not the only player to know nothing but Los Leones. Inaki Williams has also been linked with other clubs without ever pushing for a move – indeed, he signed a nine-year contract at San Mames in 2019, just in case his loyalties weren't clear.

Astonishingly, Williams has not missed any of Athletic's previous 185 LaLiga matches and has the competition record of 202, held by Jon Andoni Larranaga, in his sights. But you sense he would happily run himself into the ground if it meant victory on Saturday, rather as he did when he scored the extra-time winner against Barca in the January Supercopa.

"Playing a Basque derby is very special," he said this week. "Athletic are a fighting club, a warrior club – it's in our DNA. In every match [against Real Sociedad], I feel like I'm going to score."

That unifying spirit pervades the whole team. When Yeray Alvarez had to undergo chemotherapy after a cancer relapse in 2017, the squad shaved their heads in solidarity with the defender. Yeray is still less than two years into a seven-year contract signed in 2019.

That Athletic feeling never seems to leave those who do pursue careers elsewhere. Yuri Berchiche was drawn back after a decade away; Ibai Gomez returned twice, first in 2010 and then in 2019. Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez and Paris Saint-Germain's Ander Herrera have been linked with moves back, too.

Others have been lured in after careers beyond Bilbao, such as Raul Garcia and Oscar de Marcos. There are even two who made the fiendish decision to join from Sociedad: Mikel Balenziaga, who signed as a 20-year-old in 2008, and Inigo Martinez, who made the acrimonious switch three years ago to replace Manchester City-bound Aymeric Laporte.

Success might have been thin on the ground for Athletic in the past 30 years, but compromising on their ethos was never an option. It means it falls on the coaches to turn that sense of belonging off the pitch into identity on it, and Marcelino has done just that. They won the four-team Supercopa tournament, scored 13 goals in their first five league games – the best start by a new coach since Inaki Saez in 1980 – and, since he took charge on January 4, they have only lost to Barca (twice) and LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.

"Marcelino has given extra confidence to the players," former Athletic man Benat told Stats Perform News. "I think Athletic have more experience lately. I do think Athletic are a balanced team. They can play with or without the ball and they can do great things with or without the ball."

Winning these games would be greatness indeed.

 

'IT'S ONE OF THOSE SPECIAL THINGS'

Given they have lost all three of their previous Copa finals, in 2009, 2012 and 2015, Athletic might feel relieved to have two shots at glory this month.

There is little shame in those defeats, though. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe.

But while revenge served cold is on the menu for the 2021 final, the clash with La Real is arguably the main course. "If we can only win one, it's the one against La Real," said Oscar de Marcos this week, while Andoni Goikoetxea, one of the stars of 1984, described the match as one "in which the hegemony of Basque football will be played".

Former Athletic midfielder Markel Susaeta, who played in each of those most recent final defeats to Barcelona, told Stats Perform News: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important, that final.

"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.

"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."

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.

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."

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