Having helped his boyhood club to their first major trophy in 17 years by netting in a penalty shoot-out victory over Valencia in the Copa del Rey final, it is fair to say Real Betis captain Joaquin was in a celebratory mood.

Few neutrals would have denied the club, who have been relegated twice since their last Copa win in 2005, or Joaquin, a genuine Betis legend who has made the most appearances of any outfield player in LaLiga history (595), their moment of glory.

Unless, of course, they could have foreseen the way in which Joaquin chose to celebrate the triumph, in all his glory.

Having cemented his reputation as one of football's greatest practical jokers by posing stark naked with the Copa he won with former club Valencia in 2008, the 40-year-old decided to grace Betis' social media accounts with a recreation of that photo.

A Copa success might well be the most fitting end to Joaquin's career. He seems intent on making the memory last in more ways than one.

Those of a nervous disposition will probably be hoping it is the last trophy of his career, anyway.

A tearful Joaquin dedicated Real Betis' Copa del Rey triumph to all the club's supporters, after a tense penalty-shootout win over Valencia on Saturday.

Scores were locked at 1-1 after 120 minutes, with Hugo Duro cancelling out Borja Iglesias' opener for Betis in the 11th minute. Yunus Musah's miss in the shootout gifted the eventual opportunity for Juan Miranda to give Betis the 5-4 win on penalties, and the 22-year-old held his nerve.

"Long live Betis even when they lose" has become a mantra for supporters, with the club being relegated twice since their last Copa del Rey triumph in 2005.

The 37-year-old Joaquin, the boyhood Betis fan who was also playing against his old team on Saturday, could not hide his emotion post-match.

"These tears are the suppressed emotion of all these days, of seeing the people and how they supported us, knowing the responsibility of playing this type of game," he told TVE. "It is normal for these tears to flow. We are very happy.

"Let's enjoy the moment, we are Copa del Rey champions, and we dedicate it to everyone who is by our side – the staff, the coaches, the cooks, all the people who are not seen, for my daughters, my wife, my brothers, my parents, all the Beticos."

In characteristic Betis fashion, they had to do it the hard way against a Valencia team willing to absorb pressure.

The Verdiblancos went close to scoring a winner as Sergio Canales hit the frame of the goal, with Valencia keeper Giorgi Mamardashvili also denying Iglesias and Nabil Fekir.

Joaquin, the Betis captain and surviving member from that 2005 victory, believes his side's eventual triumph and contention for the Champions League this season was reflective of the steady improvement they have shown since gaining promotion back to LaLiga in 2015.

"I think that the work of this season and seasons past has been seen today, of gradually achieving goals and improving the team," he said.

"We are having a great season, all the fans deserve it, congratulations to Valencia because they also would have been fair winners. Penalties are a lottery but we also deserved it. It is a joy for all the Beticos."

Yunus Musah missed the only penalty as Real Betis beat Valencia 5-4 on spot-kicks following a 1-1 draw after extra time to win the Copa del Rey for a third time.

Betis entered the contest in their home city of Seville as favourites and led early on through a Borja Iglesias header, only for Hugo Duro to equalise from Valencia's only shot of the first half.

Despite chances for both sides in a gripping and feisty final, the contest at Estadio de La Cartuja went all the way to penalties and it was Manuel Pellegrini's side who prevailed.

Substitute Musah missed the only spot-kick, with Juan Miranda sending Giorgi Mamardashvili the wrong way to seal a famous victory for Betis.

 

Valencia trail Betis by 15 points in LaLiga and the gulf between the sides told early on as Borja Iglesias headed Hector Bellerin's cross past Giorgi Mamardashvili from six yards.

Jose Bordalas' men showed characteristic resolve by responding 19 minutes later, however, thanks to Duro's delightful dinked finish after being played in by Ilaix Moriba's incisive pass.

Betis went close to restoring their lead when Sergio Canales' deflected shot hit the woodwork but Valencia, who had a penalty shout for a shove on Duro turned down, held firm.

Moriba miscued a volley when spotted in a great position but Betis continued to create chances, with Juanmi denied by both Mamardashvili and then the post.

Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias were next to be frustrated by Mamardashvili, while Claudio Bravo was needed to keep out Carlos Soler in a gripping finale to normal time.

A quieter period of extra time followed, which was played at walking pace at times, paving the way for penalties to determine the winner of the 120th Copa del Rey final.

After the first six spot-kicks were converted, Musah skied his attempt and that set up Miranda to settle a tense final that went all the way.

 

 

There was a surprise guest at the wedding of Real Betis star Joaquin in July 2005 – surprise because this particular appearance hinged on the outcome of a football match five weeks earlier.

As Joaquin and his new wife stood at the front of the church in his hometown of Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz, something else couldn't help but hog attention.

The Copa del Rey trophy, draped in green and white ribbons stood tall – literally, because it's huge – and proud.

That's right, the Copa del Rey was an especially notable guest at Joaquin's wedding, as the winger – then 23 years old – had only recently helped Betis to just their second success in the competition and first since 1977.

Joaquin has always been regarded as something of a practical joker, with that not-so-subtle wedding decoration very much from his wheelhouse.

Fast-forward 17 years and Joaquin is readying himself for another tilt at the crown with his beloved Betis, who themselves haven't reached the final since that momentous 2-1 extra-time win over Osasuna at the Vicente Calderon.

 

Fittingly, Betis' opponents on Saturday will be the other club most people would associate with Joaquin: Valencia, with whom he won the only other trophy of his career in 2008 – also the Copa – during a five-year spell.

That triumph spawned another curious – but no less Joaquin – photo of the winger with the trophy, as he was snapped stark naked squatting next to the cup in Valencia's dressing room.

Hopefully social media won't see a repeat of that one on Saturday…

Joaquin didn't feature for Valencia in that final, however, and therefore his 2005 success will gratefully remain the focus for most.

While Joaquin is by no means the Betis regular he was 17 years ago when he was an exciting fleet-footed winger, this occasion will still be all about him in the build-up, with there also a degree of aptness around the fact Saturday's game is taking place in Seville, at La Cartuja.

This campaign is expected to be Joaquin's last as a player. Now 40, his contract expires at the end of the season and in November he hinted retirement was likely in 2022. Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini quickly looked to sweep that under the rug, adamant such decisions will wait until 2021-22 is finished, and there's been very little public discussion of the subject from he or Joaquin since.

It's easy to understand why many aren't predicting another year of Joaquin in LaLiga, though. Even if you ignore the fairly important point of his age, his time on the pitch has reduced significantly this term.

In LaLiga he has made only two starts this season and in total featured for just 395 minutes. Of course, he's been used across multiple competitions in 2021-22 and was named in the starting XI eight times in the Europa League.

But while his 31 appearances is actually one more than in 2020-21, his minutes-per-game average of 36 (1,117 total) is 12.4 minutes fewer than last term, highlighting how he's become even more of a peripheral figure.

But that's not to say his influence has waned. Pellegrini stood aside before the first leg of their Copa semi-final defeat of Rayo Vallecano to let Joaquin deliver a speech.

He said: "Look each other in the eyes. We are here because of ourselves. I don't know if I should talk to you as a team-mate, friend or captain, but I will do it as a Betico, because I know what many of them must be feeling here today.

"They are going to be there until the death. The Beticos, and this club, have suffered for a long time. Sacrifice and effort lead to glory. That's the reward.

"I had an uncle who used to say, and he taught me this, that there's nothing more beautiful than making other people happy – today we have that chance. We're going to go out there and show we want to be in that final."

Betis fell behind early on in that game in Vallecas but went on to win the game 2-1. They then looked to be heading for extra time when Bebe spectacularly put Rayo ahead with 80 minutes played of the second leg in Seville, but a moment of inspiration from Joaquin right at the end opened the Rayo defence up.

He brought down a cross-field pass, glided away from Bebe and slipped a perfectly weighted pass in behind the defence for Sergio Canales, whose prodded pass was deflected towards goal and tapped in by Borja Iglesias.

The entire Betis bench and staff mobbed Joaquin at full-time, fully aware of what their achievement meant to him – but it was also a show of appreciation, with the veteran's cameo showing he remains a very useful option.

On a per-90-minute basis across all competitions this season, Joaquin tops Betis' charts for assists (0.32), expected assists (0.29) and chances created (2.9), while his 4.3 dribbles attempted is bettered by only three players.

 

Of course, his sample size is much smaller than the likes of Nabil Fekir and Canales – the point isn't that he's better than them, simply that he's packing a lot of quality into his relatively brief appearances.

Don't expect to see his name in Betis' line-up on Saturday, but do not be surprised if he comes on and makes a telling impact – given the legendary status he holds not only at Betis but also in LaLiga, there'll be many willing him to enjoy a successful end to a fine career.

Let's not forget, his 595 LaLiga appearances is a record for an outfield player, while only one man in Spanish top-flight history has appeared in more seasons (Miguel Soler, 20) than his 19.

Assuming he does in fact play some part on Saturday, it will be his 106th Copa del Rey appearance, extending another record among non-goalkeepers.

A 17th wedding anniversary might not be a big milestone for most, but you can count on Joaquin bringing the Copa along for the celebrations if Betis succeed this weekend.

Joaquin described the coming Copa del Rey final as "a beautiful thing" after he helped Real Betis seal a showdown with his old club, Valencia.

Manuel Pellegrini's side drew 1-1 with Rayo Vallecano in Thursday's semi-final second leg to progress to their fifth Copa final with a 3-2 aggregate win.

A stunning free-kick from Bebe looked to have sent the match into extra time, but Borja Iglesias bundled in an injury-time goal for Betis after substitute Joaquin had found Sergio Canales with a throughball.

Valencia had secured their place in the final on Wednesday, Goncalo Guedes' fine strike securing a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao and a 2-1 aggregate victory.

Joaquin, who will turn 41 in July this year, will now hope to win the Copa for the third time in his career, having done so with Betis back in 2005 and Valencia three years later.

When asked about the prospect of facing his former side, Joaquin said: "My God, what a beautiful thing.

"We're going to enjoy ourselves because we deserve it. On Sunday, we have a difficult game to keep dreaming of the Champions League.

"I have already won a Copa with Betis and another with Valencia, and I've played a final with Fiorentina [in the Coppa Italia in 2014]."

There were wild celebrations inside and outside the Benito Villamarin, and Joaquin promised he would also honour the occasion – after he had seen his family.

"I'm not going out today," he said. "My wife said to me 'I'll wait for you', so I'll go home... to change. If we're kept here late then I'll have to go in the Betis tracksuit!

"But I want to see my wife and my girls, who have suffered like all Betis fans, and like I did. What a massive joy."

Real Betis will face Valencia in the Copa del Rey final after Manuel Pellegrini's men came through a semi-final against Rayo Vallecano.

Leading 2-1 from the first leg last month thanks to William Carvalho's winner, Betis controlled the second leg at the Benito Villamarin before late drama saw it finish 1-1.

The home side were content to keep possession and ensure Rayo had few chances to threaten, with Nabil Fekir mustering the first meaningful effort on target after 72 minutes had been played.

That was until the 80th minute, when former Manchester United forward Bebe unleashed a spectacular strike from a free-kick to level the aggregate scores.

However, in injury time, Borja Iglesias bundled home the equaliser to secure Betis' 3-2 aggregate win.

Betis saw a five-game unbeaten run end in a derby defeat to Sevilla last weekend, but almost put the tie beyond reasonable doubt after just six minutes, Juanmi seeing his header saved.

Isi Palazon fired narrowly wide for Rayo, and Pathe Ciss missed with a header, but there was little to trouble Betis goalkeeper Claudio Bravo in the first half.

Betis looked the more likely after the restart, with Sergio Canales and Carvalho each blasting shots over before Fekir at last produced an effort on target from inside the box, one that Luca Zidane held comfortably.

Andoni Iraola tried to provoke a late fightback, introducing Bebe from the bench, and he responded just three minutes later with a quite stunning strike from 35 yards out that left Bravo with little chance.

Just as extra time loomed, Betis snatched the decider. Bravo picked out Joaquin with a precise kick, the veteran slid the ball to Canales and, as his effort deflected towards the far post, Borja arrived to turn it home under pressure.


What does it mean? Betis on track for beautiful season

Betis have been a thrilling side to watch this season. They scored 47 times in their first 25 LaLiga games of the season, a figure they have only bettered twice in their history.

What Pellegrini's side showed here was nous and discipline. Although Bebe's stunner unsettled their plans, they responded well with late pressure to force Borja's goal and reach the final for a fifth time.

Hit me Bebe one more time

Bebe has had a penchant for the spectacular during his Rayo career, but did anyone truly see that goal coming?

It was an astonishing attempt, the swerve of the ball leaving Bravo clutching at thin air, and it was a goal worthy of at least forcing the extra 30 minutes.

Joaquin sets up dream date

Joaquin had just nine touches of the ball after coming on in the 82nd minute, but one of them was a perfectly weighted pass to release Canales for the equaliser.

The 40-year-old has won this competition twice before: once for Betis, and once with Valencia. He now has the chance to lift it for a third time, if he can beat his old club.

What's next?

Betis host LaLiga champions Atletico Madrid on Sunday, while Rayo head to Cadiz.

Jose Bordalas dedicated Valencia's victory over Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey semi-finals to the club's "incredible" fans.

A spectacular strike from Goncalo Guedes sealed a 1-0 win at Mestalla on Wednesday and a 2-1 aggregate triumph for Valencia, as they reached the final for the second time in four seasons.

Athletic, who had lost the past two finals, only managed a single shot on target in the match as the home side, roared on by the Mestalla crowd, kept them comfortably at bay.

Valencia have won just eight of 26 LaLiga games under Bordalas this season but will now face either Real Betis or Rayo Vallecano in the final for the chance to lift a trophy and qualify for the Europa League.

"It's a feeling of enormous, incredible satisfaction," said the former Getafe boss.

"It was a case of be in the final or don't be. The little they created against us, we solved in a remarkable way. We were the fair winners of this semi-final. We're in the final on our own merit.

"These fans and this pitch are incredible. I always wanted to manage Valencia and getting to the final will give us a lot of confidence and will unite us.

"What I experienced when I arrived, I was very surprised. I couldn't explain it. I've experienced similar moments, but not like this.

"The fans all deserved that we went through. On the pitch, I couldn't even communicate with the players. Everything was shaking. This gave us incredible strength and energy."

 

Marcelino was in charge of Valencia for their Copa triumph in 2019 and took Athletic to the 2019-20 and 2020-21 finals, where they were beaten by Real Sociedad and Barcelona.

After falling short in his quest for a fourth consecutive final, the Athletic boss said his side had been punished for a lacklustre performance in the first leg.

"Firstly, we have to congratulate Valencia," he said.

"It was a very even tie, but in the first leg we weren't at a good level, and we paid for it. Here, we stood up really well, and we were superior to Valencia in the first half, but a great goal from Guedes decided the tie.

"In the second half, we maybe lacked freshness, a reading of the game. We were losing our positional play as the minutes went by and maybe our best men, or the most decisive in the second half, didn't have their best night.

"We did everything possible to reach the final. We just needed one goal to go to extra time until the 95th minute, but we didn't hit the opposition goal, and we were penalised for that.

"We would have liked to have had a final with fans. Now, we ask that they continue to support us. The team deserves it because it was only small details that decided the tie."

Valencia reached the Copa del Rey final for the third time this century as Goncalo Guedes' strike secured a 2-1 aggregate semi-final win over Athletic Bilbao.

The Portugal international's powerful effort two minutes before half-time sealed a 1-0 second-leg win at Mestalla to send Los Che through.

Winners in 2008 and 2019, Valencia will now contest the final against either Real Betis or Rayo Vallecano, who meet in the second leg of their semi-final on Thursday.

Athletic had eliminated Barcelona and Real Madrid from this season's competition but could not lift themselves after Guedes' goal and were unable to reach the final for the third year running.

After 40 tense minutes of few chances, Inaki Williams was played through on goal by Iker Muniain but dithered on the ball and was denied by goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala.

Just two minutes later, a free-kick was cleared to Guedes 25 yards from goal, he took a touch into space and blasted a superb strike well beyond the reach of Giorgi Mamardashvili.

Athletic pushed for a way back in the second half, but their final product was lacking. Williams miscontrolled at just the wrong moment, and Muniain cut inside and curled a shot a yard over.

A fierce free-kick from Inigo Martinez was well held by Mamardashvili, who had mostly been protected superbly by a disciplined back three.

Athletic had a few late set-pieces to send towards the Valencia box, but there was little to unnerve the jubilant home fans.

 

What does it mean? Valencia seize chance to rescue season

Valencia are ninth in LaLiga, 11 points outside the European places, so the Copa has represented one of the few bright spots in their season.

The chance to win the trophy for the ninth time and qualify for next season's Europa League is therefore a hugely welcome one for Jose Bordalas.

For Athletic, who had performed so well to eliminate Barca and Madrid in the previous rounds, this will feel like a missed opportunity.

Guedes' golden touch

In a contest of few clear-cut chances, it fell to Guedes to settle things with a spectacular effort from outside the box.

It was one of just four shots on target throughout, but it was worthy of winning any match.

More Copa misery for Muniain

Athletic's captain and inspiration, Muniain was exceptional in the earlier rounds to drag his side towards a possible third final in a row.

However, he could not influence proceedings at Mestalla, creating only one goalscoring chance throughout and failing to test Mamardashvili.

What's next?

Valencia host Granada in LaLiga on Saturday, while Athletic are at home to Levante next Monday.

Carlo Ancelotti admitted Real Madrid missed the quality of Karim Benzema as he claimed their Copa del Rey exit to Athletic Bilbao was not a surprise.

The LaLiga leaders were beaten 1-0 at San Mames on Thursday, Alex Berenguer scoring a brilliant winner in the 89th minute to send Athletic into the semi-finals.

It was a measure of revenge for Marcelino's men, who lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana final to Madrid last month, in which Benzema scored the second goal.

Los Blancos were without their talisman in the Basque country, though, as he had not recovered from a hamstring injury sustained in the 2-2 draw with Elche.

In the absence of Benzema, who has scored 24 goals in 28 appearances this season, Madrid managed just two shots on target against Athletic, while their first-half expected goals figure of 0.1 was their lowest since January 2020.

Ancelotti accepted the decision not to rush Benzema back into action left his side without enough of a threat going forward.

 

"We're hurt because we want to win everything. I don't think it will have consequences. I only hope that it makes us stronger," he said of the defeat, as quoted by Marca.

"We don't have players of Karim's quality. We didn't change the plan. We tried to play from the back, and we couldn't. Athletic's pressing was really great until the 70th minute.

"I think in extra time we would have had the advantage, but they scored in the last minute. We played too much on the wings. We should have used [David] Alaba and Casemiro more. It didn't go the way we wanted.

"It's not the worst game of the season. It was even until the end. I'm not surprised with how the game went."

Even as Madrid's attack laboured, Ancelotti left Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Luka Jovic on the bench, his only changes being Isco for Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga for Vinicius Junior.

It was put to Ancelotti that the trio were being punished by being kept among the substitutes, but he replied: "I have nothing to say. Nobody is punished. [Dani] Ceballos and [Jesus] Vallejo didn't play, either. They're at the same level as the others who didn't play. You have to be fair.

"Kroos was taken off due to fatigue, as was Vinicius. We were thinking of changes for extra time and there wasn't time."

Madrid's next match is at home to Granada in LaLiga on Sunday.

Reaching the Copa del Rey semi-finals cannot be "the most important night" for Real Betis, insists Manuel Pellegrini. 

Betis booked their place in the final four with a 4-0 hammering of Real Sociedad at Reale Arena on Thursday, with Juanmi netting a double before Willian Jose and Aitor Ruibal struck in the closing stages.  

Pellegrini's side have scored four in each of their past three games, with the victory over La Real their biggest in the Copa against top-flight opponents. 

The Chilean was pleased his side have improved upon their run to the quarter-finals last season but urged his team to demand more, particularly with none of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid in the final four this term.

"I am very happy to be in the semi-finals of the Copa," said Pellegrini. 

"When you win, you have to celebrate things with the appropriate moderation. I don't think going to the semi-finals is the most important night. We have to keep working. 

"It is already an achievement compared to last season, when we were eliminated on penalties in the quarter-finals. 

"The dynamic is positive. We have scored four goals in each of the past three games, generating chances, but the team has been consistent since January of last year." 

La Real boss Imanol Alguacil was frustrated by the decision to disallow a first-half goal by Adnan Januzaj for a questionable offside decision against Mikel Oyarzabal in the build-up. 

Imanol also expressed his displeasure at Alexander Isak being incorrectly called offside moments before Juanmi scored his 16th goal in all competitions this season – the best haul in a single campaign in his career. 

"We didn't play our best game, but someone has to explain what happened. Things happened off the pitch that didn't help us at all and made the difference," he said. 

"I don't understand why Januzaj's goal wasn't allowed. I think before their second goal, Isak wasn't offside. It was clear. 

"Betis deserved to win but I would have liked it to have been under normal and equal conditions. It wasn't like that today." 

Athletic Bilbao avenged their Supercopa de Espana final loss by defeating Real Madrid 1-0 in Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final.

Alex Berenguer struck a brilliant winner in the 89th minute to send Marcelino's men into the last four, where Valencia, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano await.

Madrid had beaten Athletic 2-0 in last month's Supercopa final but could not find a breakthrough at San Mames in the absence of Karim Benzema.

It means Athletic, who eliminated Barcelona in the previous round, could now reach their third consecutive Copa final, having lost the previous two to Barca and Real Sociedad.

Clear-cut chances were scarce in the first half, but it was Athletic who carried the threat, with 10 shots to Madrid's three despite having only 41.3 per cent of the possession.

Indeed, Carlo Ancelotti's men ended the half with just 0.1 expected goals, their lowest tally for the first 45 minutes of any match since a 1-0 away win over Real Valladolid in January 2020.

Inigo Martinez saw a header well saved by Thibaut Courtois early in the second half, before Raul Garcia glanced an effort wide via a deflection and Berenguer, on for the injured Nico Williams, fired over.

Madrid began to assume more control as the 90 minutes wore on and Casemiro spurned a great chance, firing straight at Julen Agirrezabala from Marco Asensio's clever backheel.

Yet just as extra time beckoned, Berenguer produced a moment of magic, turning cleverly onto his left foot inside the Madrid box before bending a superb strike to the right of Courtois.

 

 

Karim Benzema has been left out of Real Madrid's squad for the Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. 

The fitness of France international Benzema has been a source of concern since he hobbled off in the second half of Madrid's 2-2 draw with Elche in LaLiga on January 23. 

During his pre-match news conference, Carlo Ancelotti was hopeful the striker, who has been in sensational form this season with 24 goals in 28 games in all competitions, would be fit for the trip to San Mames but insisted no risks would be taken. 

Benzema's name was not in the 22-man squad for the match against Athletic that was released later on Wednesday, prompting concerns about his fitness for the Champions League last-16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in less than two weeks. 

Mariano Diaz and Ferland Mendy also miss out through injury, while Marcelo is ineligible due to suspension. 

However, Marco Asensio could make his return from a hamstring injury sustained in the Supercopa de Espana success against Barcelona 

March 8 will mark 10 years since Manchester United suffered one of their most one-sided home defeats in the Alex Ferguson era.

The Europa League last-16 first leg finished 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao, but the scoreline belied the contest. United were comprehensively out-run and outplayed, dismantled by Marcelo Bielsa's bold, brilliant Basques. Ferguson went as far as admitting that David de Gea kept embarrassment levels to a minimum: "Our goalkeeper's made four or five terrific saves in the game, so really, it's not the worst result for us."

Athletic's performance was one of the finest by an away team against United in the past 30 years. That might sound an exaggeration, but it was clear to everyone present in Manchester that night, Ferguson included. Javi Martinez, Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente were four of the visitors' standout stars but there was barely a misstep from any of them.

And one man – one teenager, to be precise – looked like he was playing a different game to everyone else.

Iker Muniain scored what proved to be the winner in the closing minutes, capping a quite astonishing performance from a relatively unknown 19-year-old at the home of the reigning English champions and Champions League runners-up. He was beguiling, fearless, two steps ahead – everything you might expect from a player who had been a fixture in the first team from the age of 16.

Today, Muniain has 481 appearances for the club, the eighth-most in their history. He has played under seven coaches and been integral to the plans of each. He is Athletic's captain, their standard-bearer, the man who inspired them past Barcelona in the Copa del Rey last month with a powerhouse of a performance. He is probably playing the best football of his career.

As Athletic prepare to face Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, they will hope that form continues. Muniain has finished runner-up in this competition four times, including twice last year. He lost the 2012 Europa League final, too, and the Supercopa de Espana two weeks ago.

Now more than ever, he deserves a winner's medal.

 

San Iker

There is something unquantifiable about Muniain's importance to Athletic; after his two-goal performance in the 3-2 win over Barca, coach Marcelino grasped for the right words to describe his impact beyond mere numbers, eventually settling on "a huge presence" and "constancy". But the numbers are also pretty good.

In 23 games in all competitions this season, Muniain has scored four goals and set up a further six. He is on track to surpass his best return for direct goal involvements in a single season of 16, set in 2011-12. Back then, he averaged a goal or assist every 284 minutes; this term, that figure is down to one every 186. He's already created more chances this season than he did under Bielsa in the whole campaign a decade ago, in part because he has set-piece responsibility these days.

 

Muniain has created at least 10 more chances (60) than any other player in LaLiga this term, while his tally of 72 across all competitions is eight more than second-place Vinicius Junior among players from Spain's top tier. It puts him fifth among players across Europe's top five leagues, behind Benjamin Bourigeaud (73), Bruno Fernandes (79), Thomas Muller (82) and Dimitri Payet (105). He has completed at least 14 more dribbles (41) than those players and made at least two more interceptions (19) than them, just to remind you that he's not your average playmaker.

And yet, those assist numbers feel a little low for someone who creates quite so many attacking opportunities, even though the numbers add up (his five assists in LaLiga this season come from an expected assists figure of 4.65). The problem perhaps lies in Athletic's rather chronic lack of ruthlessness – something that has reared its head in recent years, including in those unsuccessful finals.

 

Marcelino's side have scored 21 goals from 30.9 expected goals in LaLiga in 2021-22, the biggest negative difference in the competition. Their top scorer is Inaki Williams with five goals in 22 games. There's no Telmo Zarra, Llorente or Aritz Aduriz these days. Nobody has managed more than 15 in a season in the league since Aduriz in 2016-17 (16).

It makes you wonder how high that Muniain assist count would be had he been tempted away by another club to play alongside a Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappe. Of course, it's not something the man himself has ever really considered. "San Mames is magic, magic," he said recently. "I'm lucky to play here, to have that feeling that runs over your whole body."

 

Captain Maravilloso

Compared with many star number 10s, Muniain has what you might call an atypical view of his football career (when he signed his latest contract in 2018, it contained no release clause – why would he ever want to leave?). Then again, he is far from what might be called a traditional player to wear that number, the kind of static central playmaker whose primary task is to get the ball to others to do damage.

One thing that sets Muniain apart is his movement with the ball. Whether working space in attack or simply keeping possession, as he did to brilliant, game-killing effect in the 120th minute against Barcelona, Muniain is devilishly difficult to dispossess. There's a reason he was once called the Spanish Messi.

Muniain is joint-11th among attacking players in LaLiga with the most take-ons in the opponents' half (57) this season, completing just over half of his overall attempts across the pitch; among that group, only Lucas Boye (68 per cent), Oscar Trejo (64 per cent) and Nabil Fekir (58 per cent) have better success rates.

That dribbling tends to yield results, too: Nico Gonzalez (five) is the only player in LaLiga this season with more take-ons ending in a chance created than Muniain (four).

 

Among LaLiga's forwards this season, only Vinicius (427), Nabil Fekir (302) and Goncalo Guedes (283) have tallied more carries – a run of five metres or more with the ball – than Muniain (241), while Vinicius is the only man in that list to create more chances at the end of a carry (19 to Muniain's 14). If you look at those chances in which the creator was also earlier involved in the build-up (nine), Muniain ranks joint-fourth in the division, again proving his importance to Marcelino's plans goes well beyond the final pass.

Athletic want their captain on the ball, and he rarely disappoints when he gets it, whether it be through bringing others into play or retaining possession until the optimum moment. As Marcelino said after the Barca match: "His decision-making, the technical ability... brutal."

And final-ly...

Athletic's policy of fielding only Basque players, the vast majority of them products of their own academy, is a laudable one. It's also an ethos that sets them at a disadvantage compared to rival teams.

In that context, their successes are remarkable: one of just three teams never to be relegated from Spain's top flight, along with Barca and Real Madrid, Athletic have won eight league titles, 23 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. Additionally, they lifted the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

It also means they 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 last year. Their best league finish since 1998 was fourth place in 2013-14, and this is their fourth successive season without European football. 

Yet it's the final defeats that have hurt most. Barcelona (five times), Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad (boy, that one stung) have beaten Athletic to a trophy since 2009. Muniain has been at the club for all of them.

There is little shame in those defeats. 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. Athletic also lost to Diego Simeone's Atletico in the Europa League final in 2012 and the runaway league leaders most recently in the Supercopa. They deserve recognition just for competing with these sides for so long.

 

Markel Susaeta told Stats Perform last year: "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."

Muniain has lived it. He deserves to do so again, and this time, to lift a trophy: first for the fans at the stadium, and then on the famous Gabarra down the Nervion river. If that sounds romantic... well, this is a player who makes you love the game.

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has said Karim Benzema could be fit for Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao at San Mames, but warned he will not be risked unnecessarily.

The France striker – who sustained a hamstring strain in the 2-2 draw with Elche on January 23 – will train with his team-mates on Wednesday, according to Ancelotti, but the coach said he will only play if he is at "100 per cent".

Benzema has been in excellent form for the LaLiga leaders, scoring 24 goals and assisting a further nine in 28 appearances in all competitions this season.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Thursday's game, Ancelotti said: "We don't know yet [if Benzema will play], because he's only been able to do individual work.

"He has good feelings, and now he is going to train with the group. At the end, we will make a decision. We're not going to risk it. If he has the medical discharge, he will play; if not, no."

Asked again about Benzema, Ancelotti reiterated: "The decision is simple. If he is well, he will play; if not, he will stay at home. If he is not 100 per cent, it makes no sense to put him in a game that is going to demand a lot from us."

The Italian also suggested his South American players may be able to play some part, despite only now returning from international duty after yesterday's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.

Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo both played in Brazil's 4-0 win against Paraguay, with Casemiro an unused substitute, while Federico Valverde featured in Uruguay's 4-1 win against Venezuela. Eder Militao was allowed to return to Madrid by Brazil a few days early as he was suspended for the Paraguay game.

"We also have to assess the status of the players who have played with their national teams," Ancelotti added. "If they are just tired, they will travel. They may not start the game, but I may need them throughout the game, especially if we get to extra time.

"Vinicius and Rodrygo come back from playing, but they are 20 years old, not 60 like me. I think they can get back."

Madrid have faced Athletic three times already this season, twice in the league and once in the recent final of the Supercopa de Espana, with Los Blancos winning all three – including a 2-1 victory at San Mames just before the mid-season break.

"It's a very important match," Ancelotti added. "It's a competition in which we are very excited. It is a difficult match, against a strong opponent and a very difficult environment such as San Mames.

"We've played well the previous three games against them, but it will be a very close game. To win in San Mames, you have to get the best"

Ancelotti said he still did not know if he was going to start Thibaut Courtois or Andriy Lunin in goal, but a more pressing selection issue will be a left-back, with both Ferland Mendy and Marcelo unavailable.

"There are two options, [David] Alaba or Nacho," he said. "I've already decided, but I'm not going to say it.

"The evaluation does not depend on whether Nico Williams or [Alex] Berenguer plays. Nacho is more defensive and less used to it. Alaba gives us a lot of options with the ball and he's used to playing there."

Uruguay striker Luis Suarez "cannot understand" why players are being forced to play so many fixtures in such a congested period.

South American nations are playing two World Cup qualifiers over the coming days, after FIFA inserted an extra international break into the calendar.

European countries are not in action, but CONMEBOL are attempting to catch up on fixtures missed due to the coronavirus pandemic and last year's Copa America.

Uruguay are one of five teams separated by just two points in the qualification standings, but have lost their past four games by an aggregate of 11-1.

They travel to Paraguay on Thursday, before hosting Venezuela on February 1. However, that second game comes just two days before a crucial Copa del Rey tie for Real Madrid, and Federico Valverde is set to travel back to Spain for that match.

Three other players, Getafe trio Mathias Olivera, Damian Suarez and Mauro Arambarri, could well have to be involved in a LaLiga match on February 4, while Suarez's Atletico Madrid are in action against his former club Barcelona on February 6.

It is a situation that leaves Suarez frustrated.

"I have to speak about the physical part of being a human being as well as a sportsman," he told reporters.

"We cannot understand how it is that we will compete in a World Cup qualifier next Tuesday and that Pajarito [Valverde] in this case, will have to compete in a Copa del Rey match.

"That my colleagues from Getafe, Mauro, Damian and Mati, will have to play that Friday in a LaLiga match. The schedule is quite tight, but we have to adapt to it.

"We are professionals and will do our job on the pitch because that is demanded from us, but sometimes the players are not in other people's thoughts.

"It happened before when we played three qualifiers in 10 days, with long trips of more than 12-15 hours, and obviously fatigue then has an influence."

Suarez, however, insists the squad's full focus is on arresting their dismal form and pushing on to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar this year.

He said: "There are players who go through different stages of both winning and losing streaks. But when you come into the national team, the games that you have been playing suddenly do not matter.

"What matters is the hunger to compete, the wish to live and feel what I feel with this shirt on and to keep demonstrating that I am prevailing and that I want to keep competing and have the burning ambition to make it to the World Cup.

"I've been lucky enough to have played in three World Cups already and now, at 35 years old, I want to continue with that same ambition and I wish to keep playing World Cups and to have the chance to play at my fourth World Cup. Because of that, I am here."

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