Athletic’s dream of lifting a 25th Copa del Rey title faced its biggest test on Thursday as Barcelona visited San Mamés. The Lions were prepared for a fight but showed no fear of the Catalans. Needing a victory to advance to the Cup semifinals, the Cathedral was full of life and the players eagerly accepted the challenge of taking down one of Europe’s best teams.
The Basques started well, playing with a high press that made Barcelona thoroughly uncomfortable. Time and time again Athletic were able to force turnovers which led to chances in front of goal. Just 10 minutes into the game Iñaki Williams would put the ball in the back of the net from a corner kick, but the flag was immediately raised as the striker was offside on the play.
From there, Barcelona tried to slow down the pace of play and eventually settled into long stretches of possession. Athletic remained composed at the back though Barcelona’s quality was on display on occasion and forced the defense to clear dangerous balls. Runs from Lionel Messi and others caused problems for the Zurigorri who managed to make a number of well-timed challenges and blocked a few shots in the box. Unai Núñez was immense in the center of defense.
The first half would end with neither side having opened up the scoring and Athletic came out of the break with the same relentless pressure. Moments after the restart Frenkie De Jong would run free on goal but was met by Simón at the top of the box. The midfielder went down but was shown a yellow card for diving. Athletic followed up by blocking two more shots as Barcelona began to threaten more than ever around the area.
Changes soon came from both managers with Antoine Griezmann and Arthur coming on for Barcelona while Gaizka Garitano opted for Mikel San José, Aritz Aduriz, and Ibai Gómez. The match continued with Barcelona still controlling possession and the Blaugrana would have an opportunity to win the game in the 88th minute when Messi was played through on goal. Unai Simón made yet another miraculous save to deny the shot and keep the visitors scoreless.
The match went into four minutes of stoppage time and looked to be heading to extra time, but Athletic had other plans. A cross into the box from Ibai Gómez found Williams who sent a glancing header past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. San Mamés roared in celebration which was followed soon by the final whistle as the Zurigorri booked their place in the Cup semifinals with a historic 1-0 victory over Barcelona.