Barcelona 3 - 1 Alavés: match report
The atmosphere at the Calderón was curious 30 minutes after the full-time whistle blew. Alavés players stood heads-in-hands before their adoring support, with neither players nor fans quite ready to call time on their admirable run to the Copa del Rey final. Brazilian striker Deyverson waded in to the crowd and emerged adorned with blue-and-white flags. A quick-fire double on the brink of half time won the cup for Barcelona, and sent Alavés back to the Basque country bursting with pride, but beaten.
Lionel Messi opened the scoring for Barça after half an hour, but the lead only lasted for three minutes before Theo Hernández thundered a free-kick beyond Jasper Cillessen. With half time approaching, Barcelona increased the intensity of their play, and scored twice through Neymar and Alcácer to seal a third Copa del Rey in as many years, and scoop a title from an otherwise unfulfilling season.
Alavés travelled to the capital backed by a band of 25,000 vociferous supporters, all eager to see their team compete in its first Copa del Rey final. It was also a night goodbyes; with Luis Enrique bidding farewell to Barcelona after three years in charge at Camp Nou, and the Estadio Vicente Calderón hosting its last professional football match. Lamentably, the Calderón was pockmarked by empty seats, a result of an over-priced ticketing strategy.
The first major incident of the final was a nasty clash of heads between Marcos Llorente and Javier Mascherano. The Argentine came off second best. Bleeding from the head, he left the pitch on a stretcher to warm applause, with André Gomes taking his place on the right side of defence.
Alavés’ tactics were clear from the start. Blue-and-white shirts soaked up possession, before galloping forward through Theo and Femenía on the flanks, who attacked like greyhounds out of the traps when there was a sniff of space.
It was Mauricio Pellegrino’s team that were a rotation-of-the-ball away from opening the scoring after 27 minutes. Ibai Gómez harried Piqué in to a mistake deep inside the Barcelona half. The winger drove inside and struck a low shot against the base of the post. The ball bounced off Cillessen, and squirmed agonizingly along the goal-line. Deyverson could not arrive in time to apply the necessary touch, and the danger passed.
Messi made them pay. Three minutes later, the Argentine played a slick one-two with Neymar, before curling the ball beyond Pacheco and in to the corner. The build-up was incisive, and the finish exquisite, his 26th goal in 25 finals with Barcelona.
Yet Alavés clawed their way back in to the match. Theo Hernández, on loan from Atlético but soon to sign for Real Madrid, stood over a free-kick, took a deep breath, and began his run-up. The 19-year-old Frenchman unleashed a swirling, dipping effort. Cillessen desperately back-pedalled, but could not prevent the net rippling. Jubilation. The Alavés fans erupted as Theo slid on his knees towards them.
The underdogs looked set to arrive at half time with the match neck-and-neck. Yet Barça turned the screw. On 45 minutes, Neymar showed dazzling footwork to create space, and lay the ball to Alcácer, who recycled it to Gomes. The Portuguese flashed a ball across the face of goal, and Neymar finished off the move he had started at the far post. The Brazilian looked marginally offside as the cross came in, but it was a matter of inches.
The killer blow came minutes later. Messi was the protagonist. He cut in from the right, dropping a shoulder to squeeze between two Alavés players. A third player tried, and failed, to stop him. It was a remarkable run, capped off by a perfectly-weighted pass through to Paco Alcácer, who swiveled inside the box, and buried the ball in to the bottom corner. Alavés had a mountain to climb.
They rallied in the second half, but Barcelona looked comfortable with a two-goal cushion. In fact, they should have had the chance to make it four, but Sobrino’s foul on Neymar inside the box went unnoticed.
Marcos Llorente prowled the midfield for Alavés. He looks ready to compete for Real Madrid next season. Alongside him, club captain and Vitoria boy Manu García was niggling. But Pellegrino’s side could not thread the final, crucial ball. Deyverson had the ball in the net after 70 minutes, but he received it in an offside position.
As the full time whistle blew, García and his team were exhausted. To reach the final was a phenomenal achievement, but to win the first piece of silverware in the club’s history was a bridge too far. The Alavés players trudged up the steps to collect their medals, and their fans roared. Pride, as well as disappointment, was the overwhelming emotion in the Calderón.
For Barcelona, the Luis Enrique era ends on a high, but a summer of transition awaits at Camp Nou.