Copa del Rey preview
Iñaki Williams and Athletic Club face Basque rivals Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey final. Miguel Tona/EPA.

In hope of fans being able to attend at some point in the future, the first all-Basque Copa del Rey final since 1910 was pushed further and further back until it could be postponed no longer. On Saturday, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad will face each other in the final of the tournament’s 2020 edition, a full year on from when it was originally scheduled to be played.

An all-Basque Copa del Rey should have been a spectacle for the ages. Athletic Club and Real Sociedad are two clubs with long and storied histories in their own right, but the fierce and passionate rivalry between them is what truly defines soccer in the region. The noise and colour would have been unlike anything ever witnessed before in the Spanish game.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw soccer across Europe postponed for a number of months last year, threw a spanner in the works. While all other fixtures were played in empty stadiums, the RFEF (Spanish soccer federation) kept the 2020 Copa del Rey final on the back burner in the desperate hope that it could be played once normality, and fans, returned.

Alas, Saturday’s final will take place in front of empty stands at Sevilla’s Estadio La Cartuja. The past 12 months has seen society suffer greatly in ways that render sport irrelevant, but in soccer terms there can be few losses as big as that of an all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece in the lifeless surroundings of an empty stadium.

The 2020 final had to be played now because in just two weeks the 2021 Copa del Rey final will take place. Rather uniquely, Athletic Club will feature in both, with Marcelino’s men set to face Barcelona on April 17 at, once again, the Estadio La Cartuja in Sevilla. Having gone 35 years without a major piece of silverware, Athletic Club could now win two in the space of a fortnight.

“We try to focus on what we are supposed to do in each match but I’m sure that all players keep on thinking about the finals,” Marcelino recently explained when asked how he will maintain his players’ focus from one final to the next. At least he can be forgiven for rolling out the old cliche that every game is a cup final, because for the time being it pretty much is.

Despite all that has dulled Saturday’s match, history still reckons for the two Basque rivals. As already referenced, Athletic Club, the oldest club in Spain’s top flight, have gone over three decades without winning a cup or league title. Real Sociedad have gone 32 years. The two giants of the Spanish game have been starved of any sort of meaningful success for a long time.

Athletic Club, however, do have some recent experience of tournament success after beating both Barcelona and Real Madrid to win Spain’s revamped Supercopa in January. That could potentially give Marcelino and his players something of an edge. They already know how to win when a trophy’s on the line, as does Marcelino who won the Copa del Rey with Valencia in 2019.

Inaki Williams notched a goal and an assist in the extra time win over Barcelona in the Supercopa final and is widely considered Athletic Club’s primary threat in the post-Aritz Aduriz age. Raul Garcia also can’t be discounted as a threat, particularly in the air while Iker Muniain, who has suffered dreadful injury misfortune over the years, has enjoyed something of a career renaissance under Marcelino.

Real Sociedad sit higher than their rivals in the La Liga table, but their recent form has been less than convincing, winning just one of their last five fixtures in all competitions. A 6-1 defeat to Barcelona before the international break illustrated just how low confidence is at the Anoeta right now.

Imanol Alguacil still has a lot of quality at his disposal, though. David Silva is an injury concern ahead of the final, but is expected to be fit enough to play. The former Manchester City playmaker has been a standout for La Real since joining last summer while young talents like Alexander Isak, Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino continue to grow and develop.

Whatever happens in Sevilla this Saturday will be remembered by fans of Athletic Club and Real Sociedad, perhaps not in the way that was originally planned before Covid-19 struck, but this remains an era-defining clash for both clubs. The fans might not be there in person, but their presence will still be felt in the weight of history.