After a dramatic comeback against Real Madrid, we go into a Copa Del Rey FINAL against Atletico, looking to win the biggest trophy in our fair club’s history.
The final was hosted in La Romaleda in Zaragoza, a surprisingly small stadium with a capacity of just 33,000. It was obviously a packed house. Having been tripped up by Atleti earlier in the year I was very tactically wary going into this one. This is how we lined up:
A more principled manager may have kept the same high pressing tactics that we’ve ridden since the new year, but frankly I have no respect whatsoever for any Diego Simeone coached team’s ability to build up play without the ability to counter, so I only pressed to midfield and I told my back line to sit in deep. We would not be caught on the counter I absolutely refused.
Unfortunately, Diego had basically the same idea, and what transpired first for 90 minutes, then for 120, was a dreadfully dull affair. Two shots for us, five for them, and nothing for either keeper to do all night except take goal kicks.
As extra time began, I told my team to waste time. Atletico’s utter inability to win finals in extra time and penalties is well documented and I believed that if we could get to penalties, Jan Oblak or no (because I think he’s overrated anyway), we could prevail. In extra time I inserted Santi Cazorla for Foden and Toko Ekambi was worn down so badly I had to put in Ade Lookman (Toko would come up injured in training just after this match) and so after 120 minutes we had to set our penalty takers.
I know I’ve been suspected by many in our fanbase to be someone who is willing to push aside our club’s Spanish identity and disregard canteranos for the sake of flashy talent from the English Premier League, and to be honest that played a bit into my penalty taker selections. The men responsible for our fate would be Cazorla, Gaspar, Trigueros, Albiol, and Iborra. Including Asenjo in goal, all Spanish, multiple players who spent time in our various youth teams, and our true Cantera man Gaspar.
Atleti’s kickers were Thomas Lemar. Hector Herrera, Felipe Alvaro Morata, and Santiago Arias.
After Lemar converted his kick we sent in Santi, because I don’t believe in saving takers for kicks that may never come. He converted as well and so did Herrera for Atleti and Mario for us. Up steps the Brazilian Felipe and let me just tell you, if a player is 30 years old and has never played outside of the Brazilian league, he’s not good enough to be in a Cup Final in Spain. Sure enough, he kicks it right at Asenjo and Trigueros has a chance to give us our first advantage.
Manu, the most underrated player in Spain’s top flight, cooly dispactches his penalty and I can already taste the champagne that’ll be drunk out of the cup itself. (Okay, really sparkling grape juice for me but I’m sure the players would have had champagne.) Alvaro Morata converts for Atleti then up steps wily veteran Raul Albiol with a chance to cement his place in club history.
Then Jan Oblak happened. The text on my screen described it as a ‘fingertip save’ and threw some exclamation points in, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about sparkling grape juice anymore. Santiago Arias steps up with the chance to give Atleti the lead and put an unbelievable amount of pressure on Iborra.
Now, using the principles applied to Felipe, let me ask you. Should a right back that never played in a top five league before he was 28 be in a cup final staring down the great Sergio Asenjo? Does a player, who’s real life counterpart has only made 7 league appearances all year be trusted with the most important kick of the season for Atletico Madrid?
Friends, you don’t need a virtual gold coaching badge to see very quickly that putting this man in this position was a terrible idea. Of course it was never going to work, of course Asenjo saved it, and of course Iborra now had the chance to win the trophy and make us the most legendary team in club history (legendary in this instance meaning like a unicorn because this team, unfortunately, doesn’t really exist).
So, up steps Iborra. I didn’t learn until after the game that real life Iborra has only scored one penalty in the last nine years, and that putting him in this position was probably a terrible idea. But you would never have known it from how he took his chance here. Sending Oblak the wrong way, the ball bounced so hard out of the back of net that it rolled back into the penalty era and thousands of Villarreal fans who had made the 3+ hour drive burst into exultation as we finally had our hands on the great trophy. Villarreal CF, 2019-2020 Copa Del Rey Champions!
How the season ended
I must say, after the Copa triumph the rest of the year is kind of a blur. We were a dozen points clear in 4th when the Final happened and had no realistic chance of catching the league leaders Barcelona so I stopped playing the guys on loan and just focused on giving playing time to those I expected to be back for next season. We lost to Barcelona, drew Valencia, and won the rest. Toko Ekambi finished second in the league (behind Santi Mina, strangely) for the leading scorer award and we head into the summer with a title, a berth in the Champions League, and hope for the future.
I want to make drastic changes to this squad over the summer, and tomorrow I’ll give you a report on how that business went.