After a year's delay, Euro 2020 will finally get under way when Italy take on Turkey in Rome on Friday, June 11.

Some of the world's top talents will be on display in the month-long tournament, including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane.

But away from the elite players, there are a clutch of others looking to overshadow those aforementioned names and leave their own mark on the pan-European competition.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform picks out eight under-the-radar stars – those that would not necessarily be considered as one of the favourites for individual honours before a ball is kicked – ahead of the tournament.

 

Federico Chiesa (Italy and Juventus)

Juventus may have endured one of their worst campaigns in recent memory last time out, but Chiesa can hold his head up high after impressing in his first year at the Allianz Stadium.

He was the man for the big occasions, scoring a couple of goals in January's league victory over Milan and the winner in Juve's Coppa Italia triumph against Atalanta.

The 23-year-old was a regular threat down both flanks ​– only Benevento forward Riccardo Improta (77, 29.87 per cent) had more open-play crosses in Serie A last season with a higher success rate than Chiesa (69, 27.54 per cent).

That ability to both create and score goals, plus his never-say-die spirit – best embodied by his three goals in two legs of the Champions League last-16 knockout defeat to Porto – means he is already a fan favourite in Turin.

"He tries to ignite the fans at home on the couch to let them feel the game like the players in the pitch," former Juve striker Fabrizio Ravanelli told Stats Perform. 

"He always sends a strong message to Juventus fans, the true DNA of Juventus of never giving up like it says in the motto: 'Till the end'."

 

Alexander Isak (Sweden and Real Sociedad)

Whisper it quietly, but Sweden may have a new superstar forward emerging to rival the legendary figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Isak's 17 strikes in 34 league appearances for Real Sociedad last season saw him become the Swede with the most goals in a single LaLiga campaign, surpassing Ibrahimovic's 16 for Barcelona in 2009-10.

He may be tall and blessed with great technical ability, but Isak is a lot different to Ibrahimovic – ruled out of Euro 2020 with a knee injury – in terms of his playing style.

And with clubs such as Barcelona and Manchester City reportedly keeping a close eye on the 21-year-old, it may well be one day that other youngsters from the Scandinavian country are described as 'the next Isak'.

 

Unai Simon (Spain and Athletic Bilbao)

Luis Enrique has not shied away from putting his faith in youth at the expense of those who have been there and done it, with veteran centre-back Sergio Ramos arguably the most high-profile omission from any squad at Euro 2020.

That is also true between the sticks, where 23-year-old Athletic Bilbao stopper Simon has usurped David de Gea to take control of the number-one spot.

Unlike Manchester United keeper De Gea and Chelsea's Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has not made the cut for Spain, Simon played regularly for his club side in 2020-21.

Indeed, the only Spanish goalkeepers to play more minutes last term in Europe's top five leagues than Simon (3,330) were Alex Remiro and Fernando Pacheco of Real Sociedad and Deportivo Alaves respectively.

Simon saved 63.3 per cent of the shots he faced in LaLiga in 2020-21, compared to 65.22 per cent for De Gea in 26 Premier League games, and the six-cap keeper will need to be at his best if Spain are to banish their demons from the 2018 World Cup.

 

Jamal Musiala (Germany and Bayern Munich)

Musiala switched international allegiance from England to Germany four months ago in the same week he became Bayern's youngest Champions League goalscorer at the age of 17 years and 363 days.

Despite strong competition for places, Musiala featured regularly for the German champions last season with 35 appearances in all competitions, albeit the majority of those outings being as a substitute.

The former Chelsea product made his first two appearances for Germany in March's World Cup qualifiers and only adds to a plethora of options available to Joachim Low in the final third.

Musiala may not be considered a regular just yet, but the stats suggest Low should perhaps consider using the youngster from the beginning of games.

Bayern's win rate increased from 62.5 per cent without Musiala in their side in the Bundesliga last term to 73.1 per cent with him, while their average goals for climbed from 2.5 to 3.0, and their passing accuracy in the final third went from 72.4 to 74.1.

Not so much a lucky omen, but a player who is clearly already good enough to make a telling impact on even the biggest sides.

 

Marcus Thuram (France and Borussia Monchengladbach)

No nation boasts a collection of forwards quite like France, who can call upon Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Wissam Ben Yedder, Thomas Lemar, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud and the returning Karim Benzema.

What chance does Borussia Monchengladbach forward Thuram have, then, of ousting any of those players from the side?

While the 23-year-old may not be used as a regular starter, he will provide an intriguing option for spoiled-for-choice head coach Didier Deschamps to choose from off the bench for group games against Germany, Portugal and Hungary.

Thuram, the son of World Cup winner Lilian, certainly knows how to make the most of his minutes on the field and has the ability to score via a range of different ways.

All eight of his Bundesliga goals last term were scored inside the box, but they were shared between his right foot (three), left foot (two), head (two) and other means (one).

In fact, he was one of just nine forwards to start 20 games or fewer in Europe's top five leagues last season and still score more than once with his right foot.

 

Aleksandr Golovin (Russia and Monaco)

Monaco midfielder Golovin was plagued by injuries and illness in 2020-21 but still played a starring role in Monaco's unlikely Ligue 1 title bid that went down to the final game.

The 25-year-old found the net five times and set up nine more in 21 appearances, three of those goals coming in one game against Nimes in early February.

That made Golovin the first Russian to score a hat-trick in Europe's top five leagues since ex-Fulham striker Pavel Pogrebnyak in 2012.

He is undoubtedly the key creative talent in the Russia squad and, in a group that contains a defensively-strong Denmark and Belgium, plus Finland, it will likely be the Monaco man that holds the key to his side's hopes of progression.

His effectiveness with set-piece deliveries could be particularly vital.

 

 

Yusuf Yazici (Turkey and Lille)

Lille's incredible Ligue 1 triumph was down to a collective effort, but a few players certainly stood out for the shock title winners.

Look no further than breakthrough star Yazici, whose return of a goal every 153.71 minutes was the fourth best of any midfielder with at least five goals in Europe's top five leagues in 2020-21, trailing just Joe Willock, Lars Stindl and Musiala.

The 24-year-old scored seven league goals in total and netted the same amount in the Europa League, where Lille made it to the knockout stages before being eliminated by Ajax.

That includes a couple of three-goal hauls in the group stage as he became the first player to score an away hat-trick against Milan in all competitions since Rivaldo in October 2000 for Barcelona.

With experience of scoring in big matches and winning silverware with rank outsiders, Yazici will now be looking to guide many people's dark horses Turkey deep into Euro 2020.

 

Ryan Gravenberch (Netherlands and Ajax)

A member of the Netherlands' Under-17s European Championship-winning squad in 2018, Gravenberch has gone from strength to strength in the three years since and is now a regular in Ajax's central midfield.

Gravenberch also has two Eredivisie titles and two Dutch Cups to his name to go with that age-grade continental triumph, all before he even turned 19 last month.

The teenage talent, another product of Ajax's fabled academy, made his senior international debut earlier this year and has a chance of starting – or at least playing a prominent part in – the Oranje's quest for a second European Championship crown.

If nothing else, Gravenberch will certainly bring a level of calmness to the Dutch midfield.

He had a pass accuracy rate of 87.21 per cent in the Eredivisie last season – the only midfielders younger in Europe's top five leagues to play 20 or more times with a better return were Pedri (87.66) and Lucas Gourna-Douath (87.29). 

Athletic Bilbao defender Inigo Martinez withdrew himself from contention for a place in Spain's Euro 2020 squad because of concerns over his physical and mental health.

Luis Enrique named a 24-man squad for the tournament on Monday, with Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos the headline omission.

Ramos' absence would ordinarily mean a prominent role for Martinez, although he was another notable absentee, with Pau Torres, Diego Llorente, Aymeric Laporte, Eric Garcia and Cesar Azpilicueta comprising Luis Enrique's central defensive options.

Speaking at a news conference after the squad announcement, Luis Enrique did not go into detail over Martinez not being selected, simply saying there would be a statement after his briefing.

The 30-year-old then posted an explanation on social media, saying that he felt it was time to put his own wellbeing first for the good of both the national team and himself.

"These lines are very hard to write. The truth is that for some time I have not been 100 per cent physically or mentally to compete at the level of maximum demand required by the Athletic and national team jerseys," Martinez's statement read.

"I have come to the conclusion that, out of honesty with these shirts and with myself, I must stop. Take a step to the side to disconnect, recharge the batteries and quickly recover the strength that has always accompanied me.

"A few days ago I transferred this difficult decision to my club and to the national team, since I have been fighting all season to the fullest for my club and for the goal of participating in the Euro. 

"I have left everything on the pitch for it, but I believe that sincerity is the best for the national team in this difficult challenge that lies ahead."

Martinez has played 28 times for Athletic in LaLiga this season, largely matching the levels he has set throughout a distinguished career in Spain's top flight, the bulk of which came with Basque neighbours Real Sociedad before moving to San Mames in 2018.

A 68.2 per cent tackle success rate sits alongside his overall output in LaLiga (68.9) and is better than his average in Bilbao (60.3).

He has won 57.3 per cent of duels contested in 2020-21, a slight drop when compared to his whole career (59.5) and stint at Athletic (61.1).

Martinez is also reliably smooth in possession, completing 82.8 per cent of his passes this season – putting him 11th among Spanish-qualified defenders to have played 2,000 or more minutes in the division. That is up on 79.4 per cent for Athletic overall and 79.6 in his career to date.

Zinedine Zidane insisted the only focus for Real Madrid should be their pivotal LaLiga finale against Villarreal, rather than his future at the club.

Los Blancos remain in the hunt to retain their league title thanks to a 1-0 win away at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, defender Nacho Fernandez the unlikely hero with the only goal of the game.

It appeared at one stage as if the reigning champions would be in pole position with one more round of fixtures to play, only for Atletico Madrid to produce an impressive comeback at home against Osasuna.

A late Luis Suarez winner at the Wanda Metropolitano has Diego Simeone's side two points ahead of their city rivals in the table.

Reports in the Spanish media on the day of the Athletic game said Zidane had informed the Madrid squad he will be leaving at the end of the campaign, but the Frenchman refused to be drawn on his situation.

"How am I going to tell my players that I am leaving now, when we are putting everything on the line?" Zidane said in his post-match press conference.

"When you say things from the outside, you can say whatever you want. I am not ever going to say that to my players.

"At the end of the season we will see, but now I am in this and am focused on the last match.

"We cannot talk constantly about my future; the most important thing is the last match that we have to play."

Zidane opted to retain the same forward line that started the 4-1 win over Granada on Thursday, meaning Eden Hazard once again had to settle for a place on the bench.

The Belgium international was introduced in the 77th minute in place of Rodrygo, with Zidane insisting it was simply a selection call made by himself, rather than any particular issue.

"Nothing has happened with Hazard, it is just that others are playing at the moment," he said.

"I have to choose the 11 and nothing more. He is contributing like everyone else.”

While Madrid host Villarreal in the Spanish capital next Sunday, Atletico have a trip to relegation-threatened Real Valladolid.

Zidane's side are on a 17-game unbeaten run in LaLiga, their best streak in a single campaign during his two stints in charge.

Nacho Fernandez's second-half goal ensured Real Madrid still have a chance of retaining their LaLiga title on the final day of the season as they beat Athletic Bilbao 1-0, but Atletico Madrid remain in the driving seat.

Madrid briefly looked to be going into their last match of 2020-21 at the top of the table after Nacho fortuitously put them in front while Atletico trailed, but Diego Simeone's men enjoyed a late turnaround against Osasuna to stay two points clear.

The build-up to Madrid's trip to San Mames had centred around reports Zinedine Zidane will leave at the end of the season, and for much of the game his team looked incapable of clinching the victory that could set up a triumphant conclusion for the French coach.

But with 22 minutes to go, Nacho bundled home what proved to be the winner, though Atletico's battling comeback at the Wanda Metropolitano means Madrid will need a helping hand if they are to be champions again, while Barcelona's chances are over following a 2-1 home defeat by Celta Vigo.

Aymeric Laporte is set to represent Spain at Euro 2020 after switching his allegiance from France.

Manchester City centre-back Laporte has represented Les Bleus 51 times in total across the under-17 and under-21 age groups.

However, the 26-year-old was never handed his senior debut, despite being called up three times by Didier Deschamps.

Laporte came through the youth ranks at Athletic Bilbao and made 222 appearances for the Basque club until joining City in January 2018.

He was granted Spanish citizenship earlier this week and FIFA has confirmed he can play for Spain with "immediate effect".

A report by Marca earlier this week claimed Spain boss Luis Enrique lobbied the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to look into the possibility of Laporte changing allegiance, so it feels safe to assume he will be a key part of the former Barcelona head coach's plans for Euro 2020.

But how does Laporte compare to Spain's other options at centre-back?

Regular game time

Despite scoring the winner in last month's EFL Cup final against Tottenham and collecting a third Premier League title in four seasons at City, it has been a mixed campaign for Laporte on a personal level.

He went into 2020-21 as Pep Guardiola's go-to centre-back but the arrival of Ruben Dias and John Stones' resurgence means he is no longer first choice at the Etihad Stadium.

Nevertheless, the packed schedule undertaken across all competitions by the Champions League finalists means he has still played 27 games, starting 24 and completing 2,250 minutes.

Of centre-backs used by Luis Enrique this season, that places Laporte third behind Villarreal's Pau Torres (41 games, 3,675 minutes) and Athletic's Inigo Martinez (32 games, 2,914).

Sergio Ramos, who is now widely expected to have a new centre-back partner for La Roja, has been restricted to 21 games and 1,790 minutes by injuries this season, while Diego Llorente (14 games, 1,160) was compromised by a serious groin injury after joining Leeds United.

One would-be international colleague Laporte knows very well is club team-mate Eric Garcia. The 20-year-old is set to leave City after declining to sign a new contract last term.

While running down the clock to his anticipated move to Barcelona, Garcia has become a marginal figure in Manchester, despite Guardiola continuing to profess his admiration of his talents.

His 10 appearances and eight starts amount to 693 minutes, not significantly more than 514 minutes across seven caps for Spain this season.

Indeed, Luis Enrique started Garcia in all three of the March internationals, suggesting his lack of club action is not overly hindering his case.

Keeping it tight in Manchester

City's defensive improvements have been central to their success this season and, although no longer an automatic selection, Laporte has more than played his part.

The 14 goals conceded with him on the field are just four more than Guardiola's side have let in amid Garcia's sporadic outings. Only Torres (13) has amassed more than his 12 clean sheets.

Laporte ranks well across all of the key defensive metrics this season, with 18 tackles placing him level with Ramos and Torres.

Martinez has made 24, while Marcelo Bielsa's famously intense style of play might be largely responsible for Llorente going into 31 tackles during his relatively smaller workload.

Laporte's duel success rate of 63.7 per cent is the best of the bunch, with Martinez contesting and winning the most overall (263 and 149), while Torres is out in front in terms of recoveries (232).

In the air and on the ground

Standing at 6ft 3ins, Laporte will provide the kind of imposing presence Spain have perhaps lacked.

He has contested 100 and won 69 aerials, similar numbers to the 103 and 62 returned by Torres, who is of similar stature. Martinez's 136 contested and 82 won again show the Athletic man getting through plenty of work.

Perhaps Laporte's most celebrated quality is his capacity to start moves from the back via his superb left foot.

Centre-backs completing a high proportion of their passes is not unusual, given the generally simple nature of them, but Laporte generally plays in a notably progressive manner.

He has made 244 passes into the final third this season, more than any of the Spain centre-backs mentioned (Torres 240, Martinez 235), a trait that is sure to be welcomed by the attacking talents in Luis Enrique's squad.

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos has been placed in isolation after being in contact with a person who has tested positive for coronavirus.

All tests conducted on Kroos up until this point have come back negative but he is now at home as per COVID-19 protocols.

Madrid are playing away against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday in their penultimate LaLiga game of the season.

They are locked in a thrilling title race with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, as their city rivals lead the standings by two points with only two matches to go.

"Real Madrid reports that our player Toni Kroos is currently in isolation after being in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, although all tests carried out on the player have come back negative," read a statement from the club on Friday.

It will be hoped that Kroos' situation does not evolve as Federico Valverde's did last month.

Valverde initially had to isolate due to being a close contact before producing a positive test five days later which then ruled him out of a key Champions League match with Chelsea.

Kroos has been a key figure for Madrid this season, featuring in 28 of their league matches.

After a gruelling schedule, he was rested by Zinedine Zidane last time out against Granada ahead of the testing trip to San Mames.

Diego Simeone took a share of the blame for a 2-1 defeat at Athletic Bilbao and reiterated Atletico Madrid must show they have the "mental strength" to be crowned LaLiga champions.

Atleti's title hopes suffered a blow at San Mames on Sunday as Inigo Martinez's header four minutes from time consigned the leaders to what could be a costly loss.

Stefan Savic had equalised after 77 minutes, netting his first goal in the Spanish top flight for almost four years, after Alex Berenguer gave Athletic an early lead.

Martinez had the final say, though, nodding in a corner after being left unmarked to leave Atleti just two points ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Ronald Koeman's men able to take over at the summit if they win their game in hand.

Simeone says his side must show they have the right mindset to win the title.

Asked if Atleti were feeling the pressure, he said: "The Spanish championship is usually won by Barcelona and Real Madrid, except in 2014 or another year when we were close.

"For much of the season we had an advantage of many points, but we understood that Barcelona and Madrid were not going to get out of the title dispute. Sevilla also appeared.

"Whoever has more mental strength will be closer to winning."

Simeone brought on the fit-again Luis Suarez, Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar just before the hour mark, with Atleti looking short of ideas.

Former Argentina midfielder Simeone took some responsibility for a flat first-half performance.

"It is clear that if this is repeated it is more of a problem for the coach than for the team," Simeone said. "When a coach does not solve that situation, he is doing something wrong. We will try to improve."

Barca won 2-1 at Villarreal earlier in the day, following defending champions Real Madrid's goalless draw with Real Betis on Saturday.

Inigo Martinez's late header struck a blow to Atletico Madrid's LaLiga title hopes as Athletic Bilbao secured a 2-1 victory on Sunday.

Stefan Savic looked to have rescued a point for the leaders with his first goal in the Spanish top flight for almost four years 13 minute from time after Alex Berenguer had opened the scoring with an early header at San Mames.

Athletic were not to be denied victory, though, as Martinez rose to nod home four minutes from time and leave Diego Simeone's side shellshocked.

The setback means Atletico are just two points clear of Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Ronald Koeman's side having a game in hand, while Sevilla are also within three points.

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."

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.

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. 

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.

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