Valencia were nearly flawless defensively and opportunistic on the counter-attack in a 2-1 victory over heavily favoured FC Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, a memorable achievement for a side marking their 100-year anniversary. For Barca, Saturday’s loss was a second major disappointment this month, coming just 18 days after their stunning collapse against Liverpool in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.
The Catalans-dominated ball possession from the outset at Benito Villamarin Stadium against an opponent that had no interest in competing in that aspect of the game and were focused on getting out quickly on counterattack opportunities. One of those came very early in the contest when a blunder by defender Clement Lenglet led to a golden opportunity for Valencia forward Rodrigo, whose shot from close range was cleared away by defender Gerard Pique at the goal mouth.
Barca superstar forward Lionel Messi got in on the action in the 18th minute, sending in a low shot that defender Gabriel Paulista did well to clear away for a corner kick.
After surviving that scare, the Bats got on the board in the 21st minute on a play in which Jose Luis Gaya received a long pass on the left side and then found Kevin Gameiro, who fired a potent blast from the top of the area past net minder Jasper Cillessen.
Barca’s troubles then deepened 12 minutes later when Carlos Soler found just enough space on a fresh counterattack against defender Jordi Alba on the right side to send in a pass to Rodrigo, who bounced in a header from point-blank range.
On the other end of the field, Messi tried his utmost to get his team going and fired a shot from outside the area just before the intermission that goalie Jaume Domenech did well to save.
Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde made a couple of substitutions after the break, sending on Malcolm for Nelson Semedo and replacing Arthur with Arturo Vidal in an attempt to bolster an attack that was having to make do without the injured Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.
Both teams had good chances to score in the early part of the second half, with Goncalo Guedes coming close to giving Valencia a 3-0 lead on a shot that went just wide and Messi nearly pulling one back for Barcelona at the 56-minute mark with a nifty run in the area and a left-footed shot that clanked off the woodwork.
Barcelona kept pressing forward against their defence-minded opponent, nearly getting a goal from Pique on a close-range shot off a pass from Malcom in the 71st minute and then finally making the score 2-1 when Messi tapped the ball home after a header by Lenglet had struck the right upright.
The final 20 minutes were action-packed, with Barca throwing caution to the wind in search of the equalizer and Valencia unable to convert golden chances on the counter-attack.
But Valencia’s gritty defence was the story in the end as the Bats secured their eighth title in Spain’s annual knockout soccer competition and their first since 2008.
Barca, winners of a record 30 titles in this competition, came up short in their bid to win an unprecedented fifth straight Copa del Rey title.
Afterward, Valencia head coach Marcelino Garcia Toral said on the field that he was thrilled to have won his first title in a 20-year coaching career.
“There’s always a first final, and it took seven semi-finals to get to a final. And thanks to the players, the fans, the coaches and my family, they’ve made me – professionally speaking – the happiest man in the world.”
(With IANS Inputs)