16 Jan Spanish Tremendous Cup proves soccer’s finest when it is unpredictable
Nobody may wipe the grin off Riqui Puig’s face. On the finish of 120 minutes within the Spanish Tremendous Cup semifinal, Barcelona have been nonetheless standing, one way or the other. Marc-Andre ter Stegen had rescued them repeatedly, however his work was not executed but and nor was theirs. They nonetheless lingered on the sting.
It was late, it was Barcelona 1-1 Actual Sociedad, and it was time for penalties.
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Standing together with the pitch in Seville, Barca supervisor Ronald Koeman held a bit of paper. On it was a listing of penalty takers, simply 4 names: Frenkie de Jong, Ousmane Dembele, Miralem Pjanic and Antoine Griezmann. Which wasn’t sufficient. He seemed on the males standing round him; there was no apparent candidate, nobody to belief, with the fifth and closing spot-kick. (And, by the way in which, why not get Ter Stegen to take one?) That was when Puig, of all individuals, spoke up.
“I am going to take it.”
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In the summertime, Puig had been instructed to go away and search alternative elsewhere. Koeman had publicly stated that it will be higher if he went. Privately, he had accused Puig of leaking conversations.
Koeman did not simply not like him as a participant, it appeared; he did not like him, full cease, or not less than did not just like the noise round him. Puig was a trigger celebre, a little bit of a marketing campaign constructing round him, the form of marketing campaign so typically launched on a participant’s behalf, however that in fact does him no favours, every thing exaggerated.
Koeman had instructed the midfielder, then proven him, that he would not play. Puig had made simply three appearances within the league: seventeen minutes in opposition to Granada, three minutes against Getafe, two against Eibar. That’s fewer than anyone else. He hadn’t started a game in the Champions League. He hadn’t started Wednesday’s semifinal, either.
At 90 minutes, Koeman had made just one change, and Puig wasn’t one of them. When extra time came, though, so did he. Sent on, Puig played more minutes than he did in half a league season put together. And now this, the fifth penalty, a final waiting. De Jong had hit the post, Griezmann had sent his shot into orbit, and it was down to Puig. Some way away, Barcelona’s players waited and watched.
He took it superbly, the ball flying into the net. As it did so, Barcelona’s players turned and ran straight at… Ter Stegen. Puig held the Barcelona badge on his shirt and ran to join them.
Ter Stegen had saved penalties from Jon Bautista and Mikel Oyarzabal — the man who had scored all 16 spot kicks he had taken in his career — and Puig had put Barcelona through to the final. At the end, as he stood before the TV cameras, Griezmann came and hugged him. “I owe you a dinner,” he said.
From the poshest part of Barcelona, pretty much the poshest part of Spain in fact, Puig beamed, looking very much the chuffed little boy. Almost angelic, like some handsome, clean-living hero from a wholesome TV series, the kind of kid who should be called Corey. So very, very… nice. The smile — perfect teeth, nice smell, a class act all the way — was going nowhere. “I will never lose that,” he said.
It had been hard, he said, and he was never going to throw in the towel; equally, nor would he whine.
“If Ronald gives me minutes, I’ll be grateful and make the most of it; if not. I’ll keep working,” he said. “I have my health, my family, I can’t complain about anything.”
He has his final now, too. Whether he’ll play in it is another matter.
So is the Spanish Football Federation, which does not have its final — at least not the final between Real Madrid and Barcelona that it had been hoping for. But here’s the thing: it might be better this way, another demonstration of football’s refusal to be controlled. Of the desire to rebel, to compete, to follow no script. The capacity to keep surprising us. Because without that, although some refuse to see this, football is nothing.
The draw for the Spanish Super Cup had been managed to increase the chances of a Clasico in the final. Real Madrid and Barcelona were kept apart, deliberately. They couldn’t go to Saudi Arabia as planned, forced to hold the competition in Andalucia instead, but the hope remained to deliver a final between those two, the teams with the greatest global pull.
It didn’t happen.
Last year’s Copa del Rey showed the risk — Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad knocked out Barcelona and Madrid in the semifinals on the same night — and now that was underlined once more.
On Wednesday, Puig had taken Barcelona to the final. Just. Real Sociedad had dragged Barcelona to penalties — “I said we were favourites and it showed,” La Real coach Imanol Alguacil said afterwards — but Koeman’s team had held on and squeezed through. “Lots of players cried in the dressing room,” Imanol admitted. The following night Athletic actually did knock out Real Madrid, Raul Garcia scoring twice.
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There will be no Clasico final. There might, though, be a classic final, if a final without fans can ever be called that. Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona are two of the three teams never to have been relegated from Spain’s first division. The two teams that have won more cups than anyone else, ever. Two teams with a rich football history and a depth of identity that goes well beyond the pitch — institutions with a huge cultural significance.
At the end of their 2-1 semifinal win over Real Madrid, Athletic manager Marcelino Garcia Toral stood with his arm around Sergio Ramos and watched his players celebrate. He had solely been within the job 10 days and already he was in a closing, gratefully acknowledging the person who had introduced them right here by reaching final yr’s Copa del Rey closing: his predecessor, Gaizka Garitano.
“It has been a pleasant, simple begin,” he stated, laughing.
Marcelino’s first recreation as Athletic supervisor was in opposition to Barcelona. His second was in opposition to Atletico Madrid, though that was known as off due to the snow. His third was in opposition to Actual Madrid, whom Athletic would beat for the primary time in 11 matches. His fourth will likely be in opposition to Barcelona once more in Seville on Sunday. It would not get any simpler.
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It’s early, however there are indicators of enchancment from Athletic, a renewed aggressiveness about them. They’d stated they believed in themselves, after which confirmed that it wasn’t simply idle speak. In opposition to Madrid, they pressed excessive, rolling over their opponents at instances within the first half and resisting within the second. In opposition to Barcelona, they misplaced 3-2, Marcelino declaring himself happy afterwards — not less than with the opening 20 minutes or so. After that, he admitted, Barca had been the higher team.
That Barcelona are even a superb team is information, however it’s true eventually. Koeman was requested after that assembly at San Mames if it was the perfect Barcelona efficiency of the season. “A fantastic show,” he known as it. Three days later, they beat Granada 4-0.
Third in La Liga, little greater than per week after Koeman kind of conceded that they might not win the league, issues are beginning to fall into place. Ronald Araujo is main the defence, the form of the midfield has improved, the hole between the defence and a splodge of forwards is closed now, there are tentative glimpses Griezmann may discover a function in any case, De Jong is unleashed, having fun with freedom eventually, and Pedri … effectively, Pedri’s Pedri.
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Then there’s Lionel Messi, the precision returning, as if he’s discovering his vary once more. As if he’s discovering himself. And when that occurs, every thing feels totally different and something feels doable.
In opposition to Athletic, Messi scored twice. In opposition to Granada, he scored twice extra. One in all them was the traditional Messi shot, from proper of centre to the top-left nook; the shot that had abandoned him all season was again once more. The outlier on each graph, football’s very personal “other than,” occupying a class of his personal, within the two worst seasons of his profession — final season and this season to date — Messi was high scorer.
“Earlier than the sport, I assumed: ‘I hope Messi’s not proper,'” Marcelino admitted. “‘I hope he is not at his high stage now that I am coming again to football.'”
On Sunday, not less than he will not have that drawback. Or possibly he’ll.
Messi was injured and compelled to sit down out the semifinal. He watched from the touchline as a stunning transfer lasting 75 seconds, containing 25 passes and involving 10 gamers concluded with De Jong scoring. He watched too as La Actual went for his team. He sat, unable to assist as Griezmann, the person who scored 14 penalties in a row earlier than becoming a member of Barcelona, missed his fifth consecutive spot kick. He applauded, barely in a position to consider it, as Ter Stegen saved them.
With the remainder, Messi raised his arms in celebration when Puig put them although, giving him the prospect of constructing the ultimate. He nonetheless won’t get there: Barcelona are being cautious but it surely’s nonetheless too near name. There is perhaps one other main absence, one other gap, because the Spanish Tremendous Cup begins on Sunday. However then, as this week proved as soon as once more, football so typically finds a method, one other path, one other participant, nevertheless sudden and all the higher for it. Somebody ready to step up and say “I am going to do it,” somebody to finish the evening sporting a smile the scale of Spain.