The Financial Express

Is Barcelona-Athletic Bilbao becoming the fiercest rivalry of Spanish football?

| Updated: January 24, 2022 19:30:46

Is Barcelona-Athletic Bilbao becoming the fiercest rivalry of Spanish football?

The teams Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao are similar in various aspects. Both strictly represent a particular community of Spain, both give prominence to their homegrown players, both want to showcase the footballing culture of the community of their respective society.

Besides, both of them are only two teams to play in every edition of La Liga, both of them are obsessed with a particular football philosophy and the list goes on.

These factors provide the recipe for an enticing rivalry. So was the case in the first half a century of Spanish football. Although it was slightly dominated by the Basque club at first.

But then Barcelona stepped up and shifted the momentums towards them. With their growing prominence in world football, the Catalans have been the more dominating side among the two.

Yet, the recent clashes between these two are probing to reignite the rivalry. To clarify, it’s mostly about knockout games. 

Their battle in La Liga is comprehensively dominated by Barcelona. Barcelona have been finishing at least in the top 2 for 13 of the last 14 seasons while Athletic managed to finish top 4 only once.

Also, of the 27 games among these two in league games in this period, Barcelona won 19 while 6 was drawn.

But if you shift the focus on cup games/knockout games, you’ll see a completely different story. It simply portrays a picture of a fierce rivalry. The shift in results, the late dramas and also the consequences are quite unmatched in Spanish football.

The embarking point of this rivalry probably started in 2015. In the Copa Del Rey final that year, Barcelona beat Bilbao 3-1. The world remembers that game for the famous Lionel Messi goal. As Barcelona also won the league, these two were set for Spanish Supercopa next season.

In that Supercopa game, Athletic Bilbao astonishingly had beaten Barcelona by 4-0 at San Memes. The return leg at Nou Camp was 1-1. Bilbao won the Super Cup.

The teams next faced in the 2015-16 Copa Del Rey quarter-finals. Barcelona cruised past Bilbao that time with wins of 1-2 and 3-1 and went on to lift the title.

They again faced each other in the next Copa Del Rey. This time in the round of 16. Bilbao won the 1st leg by 2-1. But Barcelona overcame that deficit by winning 3-1 at Nou Camp. Barcelona won the Copa Del Rey that season as well.

Then these two faced each other in a knock-out game in the 2019-20 Copa Del Rey quarter-finals. This time the format changed and it became a one-legged tournament till the semi-finals.

Bilbao beat Barcelona at home by 1-0 and knocked Barcelona out before finals for the first time since 2014. However, they didn’t win the trophy later, in a derby final against Real Sociedad.

And then in 2021, in the Spanish Super Cup final. Bilbao once again came victorious, beating Barcelona by 3-2 in a thriller. And they won the Spanish Super Cup this time.

They met once again just three months later, in the Copa Del Rey final. This time Barcelona got their revenge by winning 4-0 and won the Copa Del Rey after two years.

Bilbao didn’t wait to take their revenge as they got it in the very next knockout tie against the Catalan giants. On Thursday night, Bilbao managed to beat Barcelona by 3-2 in the round of 16 of Copa del Rey.

As you can see in the pattern, there is no clear favourite between these two teams in the knockout. Both teams have shown equal dominance.

The fact that the victors of these two in knockout games often come out with a trophy makes their battle more enticing.

Also, their late dramas are hard to avoid. In the game on Monday last week, Bilbao made it 2-1 in the 86th minute. Pedri then equalised in the 93rd minute. Then Bilbao scored their 3rd goal in 105+1 minutes.

In the 2021 Supercopa final, Bilbao equalised in the 90th minute and then scored the winner in extra time. Messi conceded his only red card of FC Barcelona career in that game.

In the 2020 Copa del Rey, Bilbao scored the winner in the 93rd minute. 

In the 2017 Copa Del Rey, Lionel Messi scored the tie winner with a free-kick in the 79th minute. Also, Bilbao conceded two red cards in the 1st leg of that tie.

A  series of battles with this level of intensity and drama requires to be a rivalry of the highest quality, even though Bilbao cannot compete with Barcelona in the league. 

These aspects are making this battle one of the fiercest rivalries of Spanish football in recent times, if not the fiercest.

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