Friday, May 24, 2024

Bilbao beat Mallorca on penalties to win first Copa del Rey in 40 years


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Seville, April 7: After four decades and a half dozen finals that ended in defeat, Athletic Bilbao was able to lift a cathartic Copa del Rey trophy No. 24 after edging Mallorca 4-2 on penalties.
The team from northern Spain was favoured entering the final thanks to its up-tempo attack, but instead it had to grind out a win against the modest Mallorca to finally deliver for its long suffering fans.
Athletic goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala saved a penalty by Manuel Morlanes, while Mallorca’s Nemanja Radonjic shot high. Raul García, Iker Muniain, Mikel Vesga, and Alejandro Berenguer – all substitutes – converted their spot kicks past Mallorca goalkeeper Dominik Greif.
Extra time in the final ended 1-1 after Dani Rodríguez gave Mallorca the lead in the 21st minute and Athletic’s Oihan Sancet levelled in the 50th.
Muniain received the trophy from Spanish King Felipe VI before lifting it high for his team and fans to celebrate.
“This is incredible. Our fans have always been behind us and now it is time to enjoy this,” Athletic forward Nico Williams said. “We have been fighting for this for a long time.”
Athletic won its 23rd and last Copa in 1984. Since then it had lost six straight finals, including in 2020 and 2021.
To win this one, it had to first beat both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the quarter- and semi-finals.
“Now it is time to celebrate. We sure make it hard for ourselves to hold a party, it took us 40 years, but now we are going to do just that,” said Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde. “Considering all the finals we have lost, and what the Copa means to Athletic, nothing compares to this.”
The club is expected to celebrate the trophy by parading the team on a barge in the river that runs through Bilbao, a victory tradition that it has not carried out in four decades.
While other teams will often prioritise the Spanish league and rest starters in the cup, especially in the early rounds, Athletic prioritises the knockout tournament despite fielding players only from or near Spain’s Basque Country region.
Only Barcelona and its 31 Copas has more than Athletic.
NBA great Steve Nash, a minority owner of Mallorca, was at the game, as well as Rafael Nadal, a native of the island of Mallorca. Each club had 20,000 tickets for travelling fans at the packed 57,000-seat La Cartuja Stadium. Some 40,000 more fans, mostly for Athletic, were expected to descend on Seville without tickets.
Even though Athletic is fifth in the Spanish league and Mallorca down in 15th place, there was little difference between them in the final.
Javier Aguirre, Mallorca’s journeyman coach, succeeded in nullifying the more explosive attack of Valverde’s Athletic. (AP)


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