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."

Diego Simeone has clarified comments made regarding Joao Felix after recalling the forward for Atletico Madrid's 2-1 win against Athletic Bilbao.

Speaking on the eve of Wednesday's LaLiga clash at the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone appeared to call into question the Portugal international's lack of work-rate.

"We are a team, not just one player," he told reporters. "We need everyone's contribution so that the team can function as a team, and that individuals and talent can excel."

Joao Felix has scored two goals in his past 16 games and was dropped to the bench for the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at the weekend, but he played 67 minutes against Athletic.

However, Simeone insists his remarks were misconstrued as he was talking in a more general manner, rather than about the 21-year-old specifically.

"Either I express myself badly, they interpret me badly or they just do what they want," he said at his post-match news conference.

"I speak of a general will. It is the most important thing in life; without it, the rest does not exist."

Atletico's win over Athletic in their game in hand moved them six points clear of Barcelona at the top of LaLiga and a further two points in front of Real Madrid.

Iker Muniain gave the visitors the lead in the Spanish capital, but Marcos Llorente equalised in first-half stoppage time and Luis Suarez scored a penalty winner in the 51st minute.

It was just Atleti's second win in five matches in all competitions during a patchy spell and Simeone was pleased with the way they responded to a late setback against Madrid, when Karim Benzema equalised in the 88th minute.

"It was very important how they reacted after Sunday. We needed to return to winning ways at home," said Simeone, who has overtaken Luis Aragones for the most wins in charge of Atletico with 309 in all competitions.  

"What I liked the most was that it went from a bad moment with them the better team and well positioned, to us being on top. 

"The second half was very good, and we are now level with the others in terms of the number of games played."

Llorente's headed equaliser was his ninth LaLiga goal of the campaign, adding to his eight assists in what has been an impressive season for the Spain international.

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (26) is the only midfielder to have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top five leagues this term than Llorente, who has emerged as one of Atletico's star men over the past year.

"Marcos, for a year, had no minutes. He was on the bench but continued training, working hard and had that will that leads you to be at this moment," Simeone said. 

"He is very important for us and surely for the national team as well."

Suarez won the penalty that he converted – the striker being tripped in the box by Unai Nunez – and has now earned Atletico 15 points from his 18 league goals this term.

That is four points more than any other individual has won their side in the Spanish top flight in 2020-21, but Simeone reiterated Atleti's title charge is a collective effort.

"I look to the group as a whole because individuals alone do not change a game," he said. 

"The team understood that we were not having a good time – they looked for order and then the group and the team generated a second half that we liked a lot."

Athletic were unhappy with the awarding of the decisive penalty and also argued that Llorente's goal should not have stood, coming as it did 17 seconds after the allotted two added minutes.

Marcelino, whose side are without a point away to Atletico since May 2015, felt the scoreline was harsh on his side as the hosts scored two goals from five shots on target.

"I am very satisfied with the performance of my side and I'm sad with the result because Atletico essentially took advantage of one hundred percent of their chances," he said.

Atletico Madrid recovered from a goal behind to beat Athletic Bilbao 2-1 at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday and move six points clear at the top of LaLiga.

Diego Simeone's men had won just one of their last four league matches, most recently drawing 1-1 with Real Madrid, but made their game in hand count to put some distance between themselves and Barcelona.

Marcos Llorente equalised for Atletico late in the first half after Iker Munian had opened the scoring and Luis Suarez converted a penalty he won early in the second period to put the hosts in front.

Atleti were far from their best but saw things through from that point to pick up a landmark 309th victory under Simeone in all competitions, seeing him surpass Luis Aragones with the most wins for the club.

Athletic have not picked up a point away to Atletico since May 2015 but they went ahead through their first attempt on target of the contest after 21 minutes.

Inaki Williams got in behind the home side's defence and pulled the ball back for Munian to miscue a shot past Jan Oblak from 12 yards.

Atletico gathered momentum towards the end of the first half and levelled in added time thanks to Llorente's header, which took a touch off Unai Nunez on its way through.

The turnaround was complete six minutes after the restart as Suarez sent Unai Simon the wrong way from the penalty spot after being tripped by Nunez.

Yannick Carrasco was unable to convert when set up by Suarez, who was taken off with 18 minutes to play in a defensive move from Simeone, but Nunez's header into the hands of Oblak was the closest the visitors came to an equaliser.
 

What does it mean? Atleti back on track on milestone occasion

Barca and Real Madrid had closed the gap on stuttering Atletico in recent weeks, but the pacesetters are now six points clear of Barca and a further two in front of Los Blancos. 

Simeone celebrated both goals wildly and the long-serving Atleti coach has more reasons than one to celebrate this victory, which leaves Atletico well on course for a first title since 2013-14.

He matched Aragones' win record with three points against Villarreal 10 days ago and has now surpassed the legendary manager with this latest triumph.

Llorente inspires Atletico

Suarez scored what proved to be the winner but Llorente deserves all the credit for dragging Atleti back on level terms - perhaps undeservedly - right at the end of the first half.

He has now been directly involved in 17 league goals this term, which is behind only Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (26) among midfielders in Europe's top five leagues.

Oblak beaten again

There was a point earlier this season when Atletico's defence looked impenetrable, but they have now conceded in 10 of their last 11 matches in all competitions.

Oblak was unable to keep out Munian's first-half strike, meaning he has now conceded in his last five home league games - the goalkeeper's worst run in seven years at the club.

What's next?

Atletico make the short trip to Getafe on Saturday, while Athletic are away to Celta Vigo the following day.

Marcelino lauded Athletic Bilbao, who will contest two Copa del Rey finals within a fortnight after overcoming Levante on Thursday.

Athletic saw off Levante 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to set up a showdown with LaLiga giants Barcelona in the Copa del Rey decider next month.

Supercopa de Espana champions after upstaging Barca in January, Athletic reached last season's Copa final but, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they are yet to play it – the match against their rivals Real Sociedad set for April 3.

Athletic are now gearing up for two finals in the space of 14 days next month, with a clash against Barca scheduled for April 17.

"These players have made Athletic Club history and sometimes that only happens once in a lifetime," Athletic head coach Marcelino said.

"They had to make the most of the moment and they did so."

Alex Berenguer's deflected, extra-time winner sealed Athletic's progress to back-to-back finals and saw them equal Real Madrid on 39 appearances in Copa del Rey deciders.

It completed a turnaround for the 23-time Copa winners, with Raul Garcia's penalty having cancelled out Roger Marti's opener.

"We are going to take it step by step and enjoy today at least," Raul Garcia added.

"I am very happy because of all the work behind this and hopefully it will be a historic year.

"It's an honour to fight alongside this group of friends.

"We have a lot of confidence in each other, always help each other and that's what is giving us the results."

Athletic and Barca will play their ninth Copa final – the most-contested fixture in the competition's history.

In fact, Athletic will become in the first team to play two Copa del Rey deciders in the same month.

Athletic Bilbao made it three finals in the space of a year as they saw off Levante 2-1 in extra time on the night and 3-2 on aggregate to set up a Copa del Rey showdown with Barcelona.

Supercopa de Espana champions Athletic reached last season's Copa final but, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they are yet to play it – the match against their rivals Real Sociedad is set for April 3.

In a bizarre turn of events, Athletic will be playing both finals in the space of two weeks, with Alex Berenguer's deflected, extra-time winner sealing their progress and seeing them equal Real Madrid on 39 appearances in Copa del Rey finals.

It completed a turnaround for the 23-time Copa winners, with Raul Garcia's penalty having cancelled out Roger Marti's opener.

Athletic started brightly, yet it was the hosts who struck first – Marti sweeping a neat, on-the-spin finish beyond Unai Simon.

Iker Muniain should have hit back seven minutes later only to head wide from Oscar de Marcos' precise cross.

Athletic had their equaliser, and a vital away goal, on the half-hour, though, with Raul Garcia slamming in from the spot after he had been felled by Oscar Duarte.

Jorge de Frutos prodded wide from a decent chance to restore Levante's lead before Yeray Alvarez turned Jorge Miramon's cross against the foot of Athletic's post.

Raul Garcia turned provider 20 minutes after the restart, presenting Inaki Williams with his first opening, only for Athletic's forward to slice his effort.

Muniain slipped at a crucial moment after wriggling his way to the six-yard box before Berenguer's improvised header looped wide.

Levante went closest in the first half of extra-time – Simon sensationally keeping out Enis Bardhi's free-kick.

Yet it was Athletic who finally settled the contest. Berenguer tried his luck from range, his effort taking a huge deflection off Nikola Vukcevic and clipping in off the woodwork to send the visitors through.

Athletic Bilbao head coach Marcelino acknowledged his players suffered from nerves during their Copa del Rey semi-final against Levante.

Marcelino's side needed an Inigo Martinez equaliser at San Mames after Gonzalo Melero had given Levante the lead as the first leg of the tie finished 1-1 on Thursday.

Athletic were the stronger of the two sides after the break following a timid first-half showing but were unable to find a winner.

The second leg will be played at Levante's Estadio Ciudad de Valencia on March 4, with the winners set to face either Sevilla or Barcelona in the final on April 17.

Athletic still have last season's delayed Copa final against rivals Real Sociedad to play on April 4 and their chance to complete the unprecedented feat of winning the trophy twice in the same month remains a possibility.

They have progressed in nine consecutive knockout rounds in the Copa del Rey - their best run since 11 in a row between 1983 and 1985 (including finals) - but Marcelino said his players must be better in the second leg.

"It may have been anxiety," Marcelino told a post-match press conference.

"We were not comfortable in any facet of the game. We missed simple passes and we were not mobile. 

"In the first half, most of the players were below their level. Then the idea of the game changed and we found ourselves again with what we like.

"It is clear that to be in a final we have to play as in the second half. We must demand more of ourselves.

"Approaching that level of play we can be in the final, but it is clear that we will not be able to drop a level even a minute in Valencia."

Levante boss Paco Lopez insisted his players must forget the second leg, and the prospect of reaching the Copa del Rey final for the first time in their history, and instead focus on LaLiga for the time being.

"We understand that people are waiting for this game but not for us now. There are three weeks in between," he added.

"What we have in the league is the most important thing now and we must put the focus there.

"On March 4 it will come and before we have several games and we are going to have to demand it from ourselves."

Athletic Bilbao's Copa del Rey semi-final against Levante is finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at San Mames

Gonzalo Melero netted the opener midway through the first half when he swept in from inside the penalty area following some haphazard Athletic defending.

But Athletic, who are still to play the 2019-20 Copa final, got themselves back on level terms just before the hour as Inigo Martinez climbed highest inside the box to head home from a corner.

The match remained all square and the second leg - at Levante's Ciudad de Valencia on March 4 - must now produce a victor to advance and face either Sevilla or Barcelona in the April final.

Melero broke the deadlock following a cagey start when he received the ball from Jorge de Frutos near the penalty spot and slotted into the net.

Inaki Williams almost equalised two minutes later with Athletic's first chance, but his long-range effort was kept out by Daniel Cardenas, before he squandered the hosts' best opportunity of the first half with a header from Iker Muniain's corner.

Levante were indebted to goalkeeper Cardenas as Athletic applied pressure straight after the break, first saving Raul Garcia's diving header and then keeping out a low shot from Williams.

But Athletic deserved their equaliser as Muniain's outswinging delivery was met by Martinez, who escaped his marker and powerfully headed beyond Cardenas.

Only a superb block by Oscar Duarte denied Alex Berenguer and there was a final chance as another Muniain corner caused panic in the Levante box in the fourth minute of injury time, but Yeray Alvarez could not generate sufficient power with his header and Cardenas gathered.

Athletic Bilbao's Copa del Rey semi-final against Levante is finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at San Mames

Gonzalo Melero netted the opener midway through the first half when he swept in from inside the penalty area following some haphazard Athletic defending.

But Athletic, who are still to play the 2019-20 Copa final, got themselves back on level terms just before the hour as Inigo Martinez climbed highest inside the box to head home from a corner.

The match remained all square and the second leg - at Levante's Ciudad de Valencia on March 4 - must now produce a victor to advance and face either Sevilla or Barcelona in the April final.

Barcelona were handed a tough draw against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semi-finals as Ronald Koeman chases his first trophy since being appointed head coach.

The two-leg tie will be a repeat of the teams' memorable meeting at the quarter-final stage two years ago, when Sevilla won 2-0 at home before being thrashed 6-1 at Camp Nou.

Koeman, who took charge last August, saw his side beaten 3-2 in the Supercopa de Espana final by Athletic Bilbao in January, when Lionel Messi was sent off in extra time.

That silverware slipped by but the Dutch coach will hope for a better outcome for Barcelona as the Copa del Rey enters its final stages.

They were almost knocked out in the quarter-finals this week by Granada, saved by late goals in normal time from Antoine Griezmann and Jordi Alba before winning 5-3 after extra time.

Facing Sevilla will surely be no easy task given Barca, second in LaLiga, are just a point ahead of Julen Lopetegui's team.

There could be another final between Barcelona and Athletic in store, with the Bilbao giants drawn to face Levante in the other semi-final.

The first legs of each tie will be played next midweek, with the return games to be played on the first midweek in March, with exact dates for each match to be determined.

Sevilla will have extra incentive to reach the final, given that match will be staged in their home city on April 17, at Estadio La Cartuja.

Because of the coronavirus impact on Spanish football, last season's Copa del Rey final has yet to be played, with that game between Athletic and Real Sociedad to be played at the same Seville stadium on April 3.

Barcelona hold the record for the most Copa del Rey titles, having won the competition 30 times, with Athletic next on the list with 23 victories.

Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann labelled Lionel Messi a "legend" after the superstar captain dominated headlines on Sunday.

After details of Messi's Barca contract were reported by El Mundo earlier in the day, the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored another landmark goal as the embattled LaLiga giants beat Athletic Bilbao 2-1.

Messi opened the scoring with a 20th-minute free-kick – his 650th goal for Barca – before Jordi Alba's own goal restored parity, though Griezmann secured maximum points 16 minutes from the end.

After El Mundo claimed the deal Messi signed at Camp Nou in 2017 – which expires at the end of the season – is worth more than €555million, Griezmann was asked about the 33-year-old's value.

"We are enjoying Messi, he's a legend," Griezmann told Movistar.

"Hopefully we can keep enjoying him and he can keep helping us win."

Messi – tipped to leave Barca amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City – has scored two direct free-kick goals from his last four attempts for Barcelona in all competitions, after scoring just one from his previous 62 attempts.

Of Messi's 650 goals for Barcelona, 49 of them have been direct free-kicks – 38 in LaLiga.

Messi has 12 goals and two assists in the league for Barca, who are second and 10 points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid.

Griezmann's late winner for Barca maintained his superb record against Athletic.

The France international has now been involved in 15 goals against the Basque side (nine goals and six assists), more than he has achieved against any other team in the competition.

Ronald Koeman said Barcelona "can't aspire to much" without Lionel Messi after the Argentinian scored another landmark goal in Sunday's 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Messi was headline news earlier in the day when a report by El Mundo claimed the deal he signed at Camp Nou in 2017, which expires at the end of this season, is worth more than €555million.

He proved his worth to Barca with a fine free-kick midway through the first half - his 650th goal for the club - before Jordi Alba's own goal drew Athletic level early in the second half.

Antoine Griezmann secured all three points with the winner 16 minutes from time, though, to help Barca leapfrog Sevilla and Real Madrid into second in LaLiga, 10 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid.

Head coach Koeman was less than impressed with the details of Messi's contract surfacing, but insists the saga did not provide any additional motivation for a player he believes is the world's best.

"We've known, for quite some time, that he's the best in the world," the former Netherlands coach told Movistar Plus.

"He's done a lot for the club. He's decisive during games. You have to respect everything he's done. He's a great player, he gives us creativity in attack. Without Leo, you can't aspire to much."

Koeman added, according to Marca: "He hasn't been more motivated today [because of the reports]. What's happened has been for bad intentions, to cause harm.

"We have to be united and focused. Things that are published have to be put to the side, but it's tough."

It seems unlikely that Barca will rein in Atletico, who can move 13 points clear if they win their game in hand, but Koeman says his improving side have no intention of giving up hope of claiming the title.

"The team is improving," Koeman added. "There's concentration, mentality. I'm not saying we didn't have that before, but we're growing in confidence.

"It's important to be second. We want to be as high as possible. The gap to the leaders is big but we have to keep going."

Griezmann's late winner maintained his superb record against Athletic.

The France international has now been involved in 15 goals against the Basque side (nine goals and six assists), more than he has achieved against any other team in the competition.

The former Atletico Madrid forward was pleased to overcome an obdurate opponent and had words of praise for Ousmane Dembele, whose fine pass played in Oscar Mingueza in the build-up to the winning goal.

Griezmann told Movistar Plus: "Sometimes you play and sometimes you don't but in the end we are all part of this and we need everyone. Ousmane is playing very well, he is taking good care of himself and we try to ensure that he is in the best condition."

Lionel Messi showed exactly why he was given a lucrative contract as his 650th Barcelona goal helped Ronald Koeman's side to a slender 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.

A report by El Mundo claimed the deal Messi signed at Camp Nou in 2017, which expires at the end of this season, is worth more than €555million.

He demonstrated his value to this Barca team midway through the first half on Sunday with his 49th successful free-kick strike for the Catalan giants.

Jordi Alba put through his own net early in the second half to draw Athletic level, but Antoine Greizmann ensured Barca leapfrogged Sevilla and Real Madrid into second - 10 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid - with a close-range finish 16 minutes from time.

Unai Simon twice denied Barca inside the opening seven minutes, first pawing away Messi’s clipped effort from close range before diverting Griezmann’s powerful drive over the crossbar.

There was little the Athletic goalkeeper could do to deny Messi after 20 minutes, the Argentinian whipping a sumptuous free-kick into the top right corner from 25 yards.

Ronald Araujo fizzed an effort wide soon after, while Ousmane Dembele lashed over from a promising position shortly before the interval as Barca dominated.

Athletic drew level four minutes after the interval, however, as Alba turned Raul Garcia's left-wing cross into his own net under pressure from Oscar De Marcos at the back post.

Simon superbly kept out Miralem Pjanic's header shortly before the hour mark, while Griezmann nodded wide from Dembele's teasing cross.

The France international had the final say, though, sliding home Oscar Mingueza's low cross into the roof of Simon's net to seal a fourth consecutive win in all competitions for Barca.

Lionel Messi scored his 650th goal for Barcelona with a sumptuous free-kick against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

The Argentina international whipped a shot into goalkeeper Unai Simon's top-left corner from 25 yards midway through the first half to put Barca 1-0 up in their LaLiga clash at Camp Nou.

Messi was in the headlines earlier in the day when leaked details of his eye-watering contract emerged.

A report by El Mundo claimed the deal Messi signed in 2017, which expires at the end of this season, is worth more than €555million.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored his first goal for Barca in May 2005 at the age of 17, beautifully lobbing Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena.

He has gone on to become far and away the club's record scorer, overtaking Cesar Rodriguez's previous mark of 232 in 2012.

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