By Deji Daodu.
The recent adoption of a single-legged format over the double-legged approach that had been used for years for the Copa del Rey (The King’s Cup) in Spain may have sparked a revolution. That is the revolt of the weak against the strong.
Like a magic wand, the recently introduced policy has raised the stakes and upped the ante in the only competition that allows teams in the Segunda Division (second division) to go toe-to-toe with the big boys in La Liga.
When Real Madrid stepped out against Real Sociedad (otherwise known as La Real), Thursday, February 6, 2020, at the Bernabeu Stadium, very few people would have bet against them steam rolling their opponents given their great form this season. But soccer has just got better and tougher in Spain. Gone is the indulgence of home and away crackers. Also long gone are the days when soccer buffs would just tip big teams and big boys to stroll over ‘minnows’ to glory.
That was the point poignantly proved by La Real under Spain’s azure sky, Thursday, when, like a rampaging army, the team rammed three goals past Real Madrid’s goalie, Alphonso Areola.
It was a long and dreary night for Madrid as their nemesis, Martin Odegaard (on loan from Madrid) and Aleksander Isak, sealed their coffin. Odegaard opened scoring and two thunderous strikes from Aleksander Isak finished the job. Though Marcelo pulled one back, Mikel Merino restored La Real’s three-goal lead moments later through another powerful strike.
Just when everybody thought Madrid’s fate had been sealed, they rose like a Phoenix to prove that they still had some steam left in them. Shortly after Vinicius had his goal chalked off by VAR, he set up Rodrygo for a goal, and Nacho redeemed himself, making it 3-4. With that, La Real hung on to a crucial win. The match was the stuff soccer thrillers are made of.
In the second quarter final, Barcelona visited the San Mames, home of Athletic Bilbao, as both teams fought to book their spot in the semi- finals. The match was an intense battle however the goals were elusive. Barcelona approached the game in their usual fashion, playing out from the back and on several occasions, Bilbao almost made them pay. Griezmann and Messi would then waste two good chances to put Barcelona ahead. Unai Simon made great saves to keep his side in the game.
The shock came at the dearth, a long ball from Unai Simon wasn’t well dealt with and the physically imposing Adruiz sent a looping header to the goal area, setting it up nicely for Inaki Williams who glanced a seemingly harmless header that bounced in at the far post. Barcelona fans and players were heart broken. A real night of drama and shock.
It was, indeed, a night the god of soccer decided to play ping pong with the La Liga big boys. The big teams and the big boys were lost in the loop and left in the lurch in what may yet be their longest, darkest night. It was the first time in 10 years that both Barcelona and Real Madrid would be bundled out of the Copa del Rey competition.
It is now crystal clear that the big boys would not be getting a bite at this particular cherry. The big boys’ loss has turned to the lesser mortals’ fortune. The teams in the semi-finals will be glad that the playing field is now even and whatever happens, it’s a big win for the boys who had been on the fringes for so long.
While the exit of Madrid and Barcelona has been making headlines as the biggest upsets in the Copa Del Rey this season, several other La Liga clubs have also crashed out in similar dramatic fashion.
Atletico Madrid, who have carved a niche for themselves with their miserly defence and their ability to grind out wins, were earlier knocked out of the competition by Athletic Bilbao as Inaki, the giant slayer, ensured that his club progressed in the competition.
Villarreal have also bowed out in not so glorious fashion as they were downed 4-2 by Mirandes FC. It was no better for Valencia, the current title holders, as they were knocked out by their La Liga counterparts, Granada, by two goals to one in the quarter finals. Could this be some sort of anomaly? Or a confirmation that the winning cycle of the big guns is slowly dying out?
Only time will tell.