Barcelona have the chance to end
the Pep Guardiola era in precisely the same way it began, with a
King's Cup final win over Athletic Bilbao on Friday.
A drained Guardiola is to step aside and hand over the reins
to his close friend and assistant Tito Vilanova for next season,
but will hope to walk away with a 14th trophy from his
glittering four-year spell in charge.
The former Spanish international kicked off his
trophy-winning run with a 4-1 cup final win over Bilbao in May
"His departure is traumatic for me," Barca and Spain
defender Gerard Pique, who returned to the Nou Camp just as
Guardiola arrived in 2008, told a news conference.
"I feel I am a much better player thanks to him and the
whole team has learned a great deal. He will leave a void, but
we'll carry on with Tito and we'll do well. That's football, all
eras come to an end."
Barca have already won the European and Spanish Super Cups
and the Club World Cup this season, but missed out on the major
prizes in the closing weeks of the campaign.
They were denied a fourth consecutive La Liga crown by Real
Madrid, and fell to Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals,
before Guardiola's shock decision not to renew his contract.
There have been criticism in some quarters at the way
Vilanova's appointment was announced at the same news conference
in which Guardiola said he was leaving, leading to speculation
of a rift between the two.
"Guardiola's relationship with Vilanova is fantastic,"
midfielder Cesc Fabregas said earlier this week. "Hearing these
comments from outside isn't good. It hurts us."
Barca will have to make a number of changes in defence with
Eric Abidal, Carles Puyol and Dani Alves all ruled out with
injury, while striker David Villa will not recover from his
broken leg in time.
Barca and Bilbao have lifted the trophy 48 times between
them, and have been two of the most entertaining teams in Spain
this year with their focus on attacking football.
However, they will have to contend with a freshly laid pitch
at the Calderon in Madrid, replaced after a rock concert there
on Sunday night, and a political storm stirred up by the
president of the Madrid regional government.
Basque and Catalan nationalists among the two sets of fans
whistled the national anthem in 2009, and Esperanza Aguirre's
suggestions on Tuesday that the final should be suspended if it
happens again caused widespread condemnation.
Bilbao head into the final with some trepidation after their
crushing 3-0 Europa League final defeat to Atletico Madrid two
"We need to be more relaxed from the start, not as nervous
and as rushed with our passes [as we were in Bucharest]"
Bilbao's leading scorer Fernando Llorente told reporters.
"We deserve to win this cup. We have managed to put behind
us the disappointment of the other final. If we can play to our
best and nullify Barca, we are capable of beating them."
The club, who only field players of Basque origin, are also
concerned their inspirational and eccentric coach Marcelo Bielsa
may not stay beyond the end of the season as he remains silent
on his future.
A two-week break after the end of La Liga will help the
Bilbao players as fatigue took its toll in the season run-in and
they lost four of their last five matches in all competitions.
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