Athletic take on Valencia in Copa after killing off Madrid and Barca

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Athletic Bilbao is once again showing Spain why they claim to be the “king” of the Copa del Rey.

Athletic qualified for the ‘Copa del Rey’ semi-finals on Thursday after beating Real Madrid 1-0. It came two weeks after he beat Barcelona 3-2 in injury time, a win that avenged their loss to the Catalan club in the final of the year.

“We are very happy and proud of our team and our players. It’s very difficult to knock out both Barca and Madrid back-to-back,” Athletic coach Marcelino García Toral said after his side’s win over Madrid.

Athletic face Valencia in the semi-finals next week, while Real Betis take on Rayo Vallecano, after Friday’s draw.

Athletics is an anomaly in world football. While other clubs recruit players from all over the world, Athletic only have players from the Basque Country region in northern Spain and neighboring regions.

And while the fight for the Spanish league title remains unlikely, no team is going round after round in the domestic cup like Athletic. His suffocating pressure and high-tempo attacks proved too much for the more talented sides of Madrid and Barcelona.

Athletic kept Madrid off balance until the hosts broke through in the 89th minute at their San Mamés stadium. Madrid midfielder Casemiro’s pass was intercepted by Mikel Vesga near the box, where he placed Álex Berenguer to curl a shot just inside the far post.

Madrid have missed top scorer Karim Benzema and left-back Ferland Mendy through injury. Even so, coach Carlo Ancelotti says the pressure from Athletic is too much for his side. Madrid haven’t reached the final since 2014, when they last won the cup.

“Not having to face Benzema and Mendy gave us a little advantage,” said Athletic midfielder Dani García, who was key to his relentless pressure. “To be honest, I was exhausted at the end, just like in the game against Barcelona. When you have all of San Mamés behind you and you know what’s at stake, you keep going.

Barcelona may be the all-time cup winners with 31 trophies, but no club year after year plays as hard in the cup as Athletic. This concentration has earned him 24 cup titles, the second most in the history of the competition.

But despite their continued focus on excellence in the knockout tournament, Athletic last won the cup in 1984. They have reached six finals since then, only to lose each time. That losing streak includes losing the last two finals, both of which were played towards the end of last season after the 2020 final was postponed due to the pandemic. Within weeks, Athletic were beaten by both fierce regional rivals Real Sociedad and Barcelona in back-to-back finals.

Now Athletic are one round away from a third consecutive final, which will be played at Sevilla’s La Cartuja stadium in April.

“We still have a long way to go before reaching the final and the fact that we eliminated two powers does not mean that we will get there,” said García Toral. “(But) now we have to enjoy another special night.”

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