Barcelona are aiming for a record fifth successive Copa del Rey triumph on Saturday when they face Valencia, with the Catalans' recent dominance in the competition seeing them reach the final sixth times in a row.

If Ernesto Valverde's men complete the feat, they will certainly have done it the hard way, as they have had to get past Real Madrid and Sevilla en route to the final and will now face a Valencia side who finished fourth in LaLiga.

The pressure is on, however. Barca disappointed supporters by failing to reach the Champions League final, despite beating Liverpool 3-0 in the semi-final first leg, and some are calling for Valverde to lose his job.

Winning only LaLiga when a treble looked extremely likely just a few weeks ago could potentially spell doom for the head coach, but the omens are good for Barca, as their previous five finals have shown…

2013-14: Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona

Having seen LaLiga and the Champions League move out of reach in the build-up, Barca – and specifically coach Gerardo Martino – needed a victory in the 2013-14 final. Things got off to a bad start when Angel Di Maria opened the scoring after a good move in the 11th minute. Marc Bartra levelled with a powerful second-half header, but Gareth Bale clinched the first piece of silverware of his career with a spectacular late solo winner, consigning Barca to their first trophyless season since 2008, which cost Martino his job.

2014-15: Athletic Bilbao 1-3 Barcelona

If 2013-14 was a failure, the following season was the complete opposite. Having already wrapped up the league title, Barca cruised to victory in the Copa, giving club great Xavi the ideal final Camp Nou outing. The magnificent Lionel Messi starred, opening the scoring with a marvellous solo effort, before Neymar rounded off a flowing move for 2-0. Their Argentinian talisman ended Athletic's chances towards the end, with Inaki Williams' goal a mere consolation. Barca then went on to complete a treble with a 3-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final.

2015-16: Barcelona 2-0 Sevilla (AET)

Fresh from beating Liverpool in the Europa League final, Sevilla were eager to upset another European giant. Barca were not helped by Javier Mascherano's dismissal for hauling down Kevin Gameiro in the first half, but they ended up managing the rest of the regulation 90 minutes fairly well and the numbers were evened up late on when Ever Banega was sent off. Barca simply had too much for Sevilla in extra time, as Jordi Alba and then Neymar got the goals, while Daniel Carrico was shown the game's third red card.

2016-17: Barcelona 3-1 Deportivo Alaves

A first ever Copa final for Alaves promised little given who they were up against. A Theo Hernandez free-kick offered them a measure of hope just after Messi's 30th-minute opener, but Barca ultimately had things wrapped by half-time, with Neymar and Paco Alcacer putting the game beyond Mauricio Pellegrino's men. Having missed out on the league title, Copa success at least meant Barca did not end the campaign empty-handed, with Luis Enrique leaving his post shortly after.

2017-18: Sevilla 0-5 Barcelona

While Barca's Copa tussle with Sevilla in 2016 was a gripping encounter, last season's meeting showed an alarming gulf. Andres Iniesta starred in what proved to be his last final for the club, scoring the fourth goal, but victory was effectively secured by half-time given a Luis Suarez double and a solitary Messi effort had them 3-0 up at the interval. Philippe Coutinho's penalty finished things off, as Barca went on to seal a domestic double, while Sevilla sacked Montella a week later.

Aritz Aduriz has signed a contract extension at Athletic Bilbao that will see him play beyond his 39th birthday.

Veteran striker Aduriz on Wednesday agreed a one-year deal to take part in a 12th season for Athletic, which have been split between three separate spells.

The former Valencia player has made 390 appearances and scored 171 goals for the club, four of which came over two legs in the 2015 Supercopa de Espana victory over Barcelona - the only trophy he has won at San Mames.

Aduriz, who turns 39 in February, has twice been the highest-scoring Spanish player in LaLiga but only notched two in 2018-19 as he transitioned to being more of a squad player.

Athletic also announced on Wednesday that goalkeeper Alex Remiro will not return next season and midfielder Benat requires a finger operation.

Sevilla have lobbied LaLiga to change the kick-off time for their final league fixture of the campaign, claiming that the temperature will be too hot for players and fans alike.

The 2018-19 LaLiga season comes to an end on Saturday, with Sevilla due to face Athletic Bilbao at 16:15 local time (15:15 GMT), with temperatures set to soar above 30 degrees Celsius throughout the week.

Sevilla sit sixth heading into the final day, but trail Valencia, in action against Real Valladolid on Saturday, by just two points, with Getafe – who host Villarreal in their last outing – in fifth.

All of the games involving the three clubs involved in the race for the final Champions League qualification spot are scheduled to kick off at the same time, but Sevilla have been left frustrated by LaLiga's decision to play the fixtures in the afternoon, rather than at a later time.

"Sevilla FC wish to publicly express their absolute disconformity with the hour chosen by LaLiga for the last league match of the season," a club statement read.

"[LaLiga president] Javier Tebas has already been notified of the discontent by Sevilla FC's president Jose Castro.

"The club feel that it has not been taken into account that in Seville, at 16:15, the temperature will be much higher than in Getafe, Barcelona and Valladolid, resulting in discomfort for Sevilla FC, Athletic Bilbao and the fans watching from the stands.

"It was possible to have put the matches concerning the European spots at a later time when the temperature would not have been a problem.

"The club regrets that this, at least for the moment, has not been taken into account and trusts that LaLiga will rectify the timetable for the good of the professionals and all fans attending the match."

Sevilla need a victory over Athletic, combined with Getafe and Valencia, who both have a better head-to-head record, losing to secure a place in next season's Champions League.

Markel Susaeta says he has been hurt by the discussion surrounding his exit from Athletic Bilbao, insisting he had always intended to spend his entire career at the club.

The Athletic captain informed the club last week he intends to leave at the end of the season, refusing to consider the offer they were willing to make.

Athletic stated on Monday that Susaeta would comment "in the coming days" and he has addressed the media to explain his decision.

Susaeta would not delve into the "circumstances" that led to his exit, although he claimed it was in the best interests of himself and the club for them to part ways.

"Anyone who knows me knows I am a discreet person who does not like the headlines," he said. "The controversy surrounding my contract renewal in the past season has hurt me a lot.

"Maybe I am to blame for not talking or for putting the interest of the club over myself or for always accepting this role that could impact me.

"I have informed the club that I do not want to continue next season because I think the best for both is that I do not continue in the club.

"I have not spoken throughout the season of my situation except when I was asked directly or when things have been said that have not been true - for example, that I had an offer from the previous board.

"I conveyed my decision to not even know the content of their offer, although, at this moment, the club tried to change my mind and I am grateful that they wanted me to stay.

"My dream has always been to be a one-club man with Athletic, but, as I explained to them, circumstances have not allowed this to happen. Allow me not to talk about them and be discreet about this.

"This is why the time has come to step aside and support the club as a partner and not as a player.

"I do not know where I will be next season - I have not thought about it yet - but I will be playing football because I still want to play and train every day."

Susaeta has made 506 appearances in 12 seasons with Athletic, who will also see Ander Iturraspe and Mikel Rico depart at the end of the campaign.

Athletic Bilbao have confirmed Ander Iturraspe and Mikel Rico will not have their contracts renewed beyond the end of the season.

Both players have struggled for game time this campaign, making just a combined nine appearances, and have been told they are free to leave when their deals expire on June 30.

Iturraspe – who has been linked to a reunion with former Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa at Championship side Leeds United – has featured 320 times for the club since making his debut in 2008, while Rico has played 176 games following his arrival from Granada in 2013.

Athletic are seventh in LaLiga with three games remaining, five points away from the Champions League qualification places.

Zinedine Zidane believes that Karim Benzema is the best striker in world football after the Frenchman's hat-trick against Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid were far from at their best on Sunday, but claimed the points thanks to Benzema, who scored for a fifth game running as his sensational season continued.

Benzema has now netted 29 goals in all competitions this term and Zidane is delighted that the former Lyon man's quality has come to the fore.

"He's two goals shy of his best record here," said the Madrid boss. "Everyone has their tastes. For me, he is the best.

"It is impressive what he is doing at the level of goals and I am happy for him. He has a lot of confidence and always wants to improve."

Substitute Gareth Bale received whistles when he came onto the pitch and he squandered an opportunity to add further gloss to the victory before teeing up Benzema for his hat-trick goal.

Zidane, however, was left puzzled by the Madrid fans' negative reaction to Bale.

"I do not get it," Zidane said when asked about the treatment of the Wales star.

"[Bale] had a chance to score and I would have liked him to do it. I will not go into the rest.

"We played a great game, we were superior, all we missed was the goal, we are happy with what we did."

Real Madrid defender Marcelo still feels at "home" at the club and appears determined to stay despite rumours linking him with a move away.

It has been a difficult season in general for Madrid, as they are on their third coach of the campaign and likely to finish no higher than third in LaLiga, despite Sunday's 3-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Marcelo has also suffered individually, regularly finding himself out of the team under Zinedine Zidane's predecessor Santiago Solari and his form has shown few signs of returning to the high levels of previous seasons.

Transfer rumours were particularly rife before Zidane's return in March, with the Frenchman suggesting earlier this month that he wants to keep Marcelo amid talk of interest from Juventus.

And the Brazilian seemingly has no plans to end his 12-year stay anytime soon.

Speaking to beIN SPORTS after Sunday's victory, the 30-year-old said: "Everyone knows the happiness I have, and I show that every day training or playing, wearing this shirt.

"There are so many things that are said from outside, I think. I don't think about that. Madrid is my home, and those who know me know the truth."

Karim Benzema led the way for Madrid against Athletic, one of few players to impress in what was another underwhelming performance.

The striker scored all three goals as Madrid claimed a flattering victory and Marcelo paid tribute to his team-mate.

"We all know the quality that Karim has, what he brings to the team, getting goals or not," he added,

"He is one of the leaders of this team. I'm very happy about the goals, but Karim will be happier about the victory that we needed a lot, rather than the goals."

Madrid sit third in the table, four points behind city rivals Atletico Madrid in second and 13 adrift of leaders Barcelona with five games to go.

A hat-trick from Karim Benzema saw Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in LaLiga on Sunday to bounce back from a disappointing draw at Leganes last time out.

Zinedine Zidane's men were left seven points behind bitter rivals Atletico Madrid in second after their win over Eibar on Saturday, but Los Blancos just about did enough thanks to Benzema at the Santiago Bernabeu in a match that will not live long in the memory.

Madrid were especially poor and lacking in ideas against an Athletic side up for a scuffle during a woeful first half that did little to capture the imagination.

But the breakthrough did arrive early in the second half courtesy of the in-form Benzema, and he added two well-taken finishes late on to wrap up a fairly straightforward win over Champions League-chasing Athletic.

A frustratingly scrappy first half passed with precious little excitement, as Athletic's attackers failed to link up particularly effectively and Madrid lacked cutting edge.

The most promising move at either end resulted in the only shot on target of the first 45 minutes just before half-time, as Raul Garcia's header from a corner was easy plucked from the air by Navas.

Madrid quickly stepped things up after the break, however, as Benzema rose to meet Marco Asensio's cross with a header that was too powerful for Iago Herrerin to keep out.

Benzema was taking the game to Athletic almost singlehandedly and went close again just before the hour, receiving Lucas Vazquez's cut-back and putting a first-time effort agonisingly wide of the bottom-left corner.

The Frenchman found the target 13 minutes from time, however, nodding in a Luka Modric corner to make the most of Herrerin's poor positioning.

And Herrerin was culpable again in stoppage-time, coming way out of his goal and botching a clearance, allowing substitute Gareth Bale to tee up Benzema to seal his hat-trick with a 30-yard finish into the open goal.

 

What does it mean? Second still in reach for Madrid

Although it is hardly a huge achievement, Madrid can certainly still steal second place from Atletico in their final five games, with Diego Simeone's men just four points ahead.

However, you would have to think they cannot afford to drop any more points if they want to usurp Atletico and, judging from Sunday's display, that might be expecting a little much of them.

Benzema carries Madrid

Hardly anyone in a Madrid shirt stood out on Sunday, with the team's performance generally underwhelming and lacking in invention. Benzema, however, battled away with Athletic's physical defence, got all three goals and could have had another. Los Blancos would be in a much worse position this season without him.

Herrerin horror show

Although few Athletic players had a good game, their goalkeeper Herrerin was by far the worst. He got a hand to Benzema's first goal and failed to keep it out, then got caught completely out of position for the French striker's second and his dreadful clearance directly led to the last goal. A nightmare for the goalkeeper.

What's next?

Madrid face a short trip to Champions League-chasing Getafe next time out on Thursday, while Athletic return to the capital a day earlier to face Leganes

One of LaLiga's fiercest city derbies takes place on Saturday, as Sevilla and Real Betis meet at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan in a game which could have a significant impact on an enthralling top-four race.

El Gran Derbi, as it is known in Andalusia's capital, rarely disappoints, as both clubs are renowned for their vociferous supporters and the electric atmospheres they create.

Even before their encounters begin, the streets surrounding the stadium overflow with people in a party atmosphere – incessant chants pound your eardrums, flare smoke obscures your vision and excitable fans make it nearly impossible to move.

On the pitch, proceedings are often fiery and engrossing, with only one derby in the last 10 years finishing goalless.

But few of their meetings have ever come amid a race for Champions League football, with the six-way scrap for the final spot in LaLiga's top four proving a gripping watch.

Getafe unlikely occupiers of the hot seat

In only four of their 11 previous seasons in the top flight have Getafe finished in the top half of the table, making their rise to fourth in LaLiga all the more remarkable for a side with one of the smallest budgets in the division.

Key to their success this season has been striker Jaime Mata, a free transfer from promoted Real Valladolid after scoring 35 times for them last term. His 13-goal haul this season earned him a shock Spain call-up last month.

Centre-back Djene Dakonam has been similarly vital and has established himself as one of the league's finest defenders, with his athleticism, reading of the game and technical ability making him a fine all-round player.

A run of one win in four games has seen their stranglehold on fourth slip a little, with Sevilla now just a point behind, but there is no doubt coach Jose Bordalas is doing a sterling job at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez and will likely be targeted by bigger clubs come the end of the season.

Do or die for Betis

No team in LaLiga flitters between the brilliant and the baffling quite like Quique Setien's Betis, as they are entirely capable of beating Barcelona in Camp Nou one week, before then losing to struggling Villarreal the next, as occurred in November.

Although entertaining to watch, Betis simply do not score often enough, with Sergio Canales and Giovani Lo Celso their joint-top scorers in LaLiga on just seven goals apiece.

They have slipped to ninth and seven points adrift of Getafe after just one win in their past four games, though victory over their bitter rivals on Saturday will surely restore belief and boost morale ahead of the run-in, particularly if Bordalas' men fail to beat Valladolid.

However, Betis have won just one LaLiga match at Sevilla since 2012 – a remarkable 5-3 victory last season during Vincenzo Montella's rather hapless period in charge at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan.

Sevilla picking up a head of steam, but Valencia lurk

Since Joaquin Caparros replaced Pablo Machin as Sevilla coach for a third spell at the helm, Los Rojiblancos have won four of five LaLiga games to put them right back on the heels of Getafe, whom they face next week.

That momentum has them on track again following a dismal run, which saw them go from pacesetters in December to losing at rock-bottom Huesca and dropping out of the top four last month.

Their solitary defeat since Caparros' return was to Valencia, who have enjoyed a remarkable rise up the table and are many people's favourites to eventually finish fourth, even after their defeat to Rayo Vallecano.

Losing to Deportivo Alaves at the start of 2019 left Valencia 12th, but their subsequent 12-match unbeaten run propelled them right into Champions League contention, four points behind Getafe in sixth.

Alaves, Athletic Bilbao still in the hunt

Completing the queue behind Getafe are Alaves and Athletic, both of whom have also had intriguing seasons.

Similarly to Getafe, Alaves are by no means one of LaLiga's traditional clubs, with this being only their ninth season in the top tier since the 1950s.

Yet they have been remarkably consistent this term, occupying a place between third and seventh – where they are ahead of Saturday's trip to Espanyol – ever since the fifth matchday of the campaign.

Whereas Athletic looked in real danger of suffering a first ever relegation as recently as February, but Gaizka Garitano has steadied the ship in expert fashion.

Level with Betis on 43 points and having suffered only one defeat in their last five, few will be surprised if Athletic are pushing Getafe, Sevilla and Valencia at the end of the season.

Athletic Bilbao have extended head coach Gaizka Garitano's contract until the end of the 2019-20 campaign, the club have confirmed.

The 43-year-old has overseen a stunning resurgence from the LaLiga side since taking over from Eduardo Berizzo on December 4.

Berizzo was relieved of his duties after the club followed up a victory in their opening match of the season with a winless run spanning 13 league games.

However, Garitano has since overseen nine wins, five draws and only two defeats in LaLiga.

That run has propelled Athletic into the race for a Champions League qualification place. They are four points behind fourth-place Getafe, who they visit on Sunday.

Atletico Madrid rounded off a miserable week with a 2-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao as Inaki Williams and substitute Kenan Kodro struck in the second half, boosting LaLiga leaders Barcelona's title bid.

Diego Simeone's side were dumped out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage by Juventus on Tuesday, despite winning the first leg 2-0, and they fell to a second successive defeat at San Mames, meaning Barca will go seven points clear with victory over Real Betis on Sunday.

Atleti struggled in front of goal throughout the match but felt they should have had a penalty prior to going behind when Mikel San Jose thwarted Alvaro Morata, though nothing was given.

Jose Gimenez failed to clear his lines with 17 minutes remaining, allowing Williams to steer in substitute Inigo Cordoba's cross, with Kodro completing the win just 27 seconds after coming on in the 85th minute.

 

 

 

Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde dismissed suggestions Lionel Messi was not fit enough to start in Sunday's 0-0 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

LaLiga's leaders were held to a third draw in succession across all competitions, as they were frustrated at San Mames by Athletic.

Messi started Wednesday's 1-1 Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg draw against Real Madrid on the bench due to a thigh knock, but he came back into the line-up in Bilbao.

The Argentina star was Barca's liveliest player, yet he still appeared to be a little off colour compared his usual level of performance.

As such, Barca were kept at bay, as Philippe Coutinho did little to ease the burden on their talisman, but Valverde is adamant Messi was in condition to play.

Speaking to reporters, Valverde said: "Messi is fine and he has played at 100 per cent.

"He has had some difficulties, because we had them as a collective, but when he plays it is because is absolutely convinced everything is fine."

Valverde accepted that Arturo Vidal and Coutinho were some way short of their best, however.

"It's like everything else when you get a draw that you think that you should have won," Valverde said.

"It is a matter for the whole team and people always point to a player because he failed a pass or some situation. It is true that sometimes they can be more successful."

 

Lionel Messi's return to the starting line-up was not enough to prevent Barcelona drawing a third successive match across all competitions, as Athletic Bilbao held out for a 0-0 stalemate at San Mames in LaLiga.

Argentina superstar Messi was only named among the substitutes for Wednesday's 1-1 Copa del Rey draw against Real Madrid having struggled with a thigh injury and he looked a little off colour as Barca end the weekend just six points clear of Los Blancos in second.

Athletic edged an entertaining first half and went close on a couple of occasions, while Barca appeared to be missing the talents of Arthur in midfield – Arturo Vidal failing to impress in a similar role to the injured Brazilian, who faces a month out.

Ernesto Valverde's side had little luck creating clear-cut opportunities in the second half - albeit Nelson Semedo was contentiously denied a last-gasp penalty – and could have even have lost as Athletic, who had Oscar De Marcos sent off for a second bookable offence in injury-time, went close twice late on.

Barca struggled to cope during the early exchanges and had two lucky escapes. Yuri Berchiche drilled just wide of the bottom-right corner before Markel Susaeta's curling effort forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a wonderful acrobatic save.

The visitors gradually gained a foothold and went mightily close in the 26th minute, as Iago Herrerin beat Nelson Semedo – who was incorrectly pulled back for being offside at the end of the move – and nudged the ball to Messi, whose first-time effort from distance hit the crossbar.

Barca were convinced they should have had a penalty at the start of the second half when Luis Suarez's header appeared to strike the arm of Inigo Martinez, but nothing was given.

Athletic nearly took all of the points in the final 10 minutes, Inaki Williams heading wide from close range, before then seeing Ter Stegen produce a remarkable reaction save to thwart him from just 10 yards.

De Marcos was given his marching orders late on when handling the ball, and Barca were denied a penalty with the last action of the game – VAR failing to reward them despite Semedo appearing to be caught by Yeray Alvarez.

 

 

What does it mean? Barca blip coming at the wrong time

As Santiago Solari's Madrid – 3-1 victors over Atletico Madrid on Saturday – pick up the pace in LaLiga, cracks are starting to appear at Camp Nou. This may just be a brief blip, but Valverde needs his men to react quickly.

Alvarez in command at the back

Athletic had to contend with long periods under pressure in the second half, but Alvarez remained solid in defence, marshalling Luis Suarez particularly well. He was perhaps lucky to avoid conceding a late penalty for his tackle on Semedo, however.

Coutinho blends into the background

Even though he did not look entirely sharp, Messi was still seemingly expected to do all of the creating for Barca. Philippe Coutinho should be the one to take some of the burden off their talisman, but he offered very little spark, yet again.

What's next?

Barca return to Camp Nou on Saturday, hosting Real Valladolid. Athletic travel to Huesca two days later.

Ousmane Dembele has returned from injury and been named in Barcelona's squad to take on Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Dembele suffered a sprained left ankle in the Blaugrana's LaLiga win over Leganes on January 20 and was expected to face two weeks on the sidelines.

The France international did not return in time to face Real Madrid in a Copa del Rey semi-final first leg in midweek, but he has been named in the group for this weekend's league game.

The news comes as a boost to Ernesto Valverde ahead of a Champions League double-header against Lyon that gets under way on February 19.

Barca will visit Madrid in both the Copa and LaLiga before the second leg with Lyon at Camp Nou next month.

Marcelo Bielsa's explanation of the questionable scouting methods scrutinised during 'Spygate' led the Leeds United boss to reveal how his detailed dossiers once surprised even Pep Guardiola.

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