The Copa del Rey final was into extra time and still nothing could separate the league champions from the Europa League winners when Lionel Messi played the most perfect of passes and Jordi Alba scored the goal that took Barcelona towards the double.
As elated and exhausted bodies piled up in the corner of the pitch, supporters in yellow, red and blue celebrated at the other, south end of the Vicente Calderón. Their team were 1-0 up against Sevilla and on course to become the first side to win the double two years in a row for more than 60 years.
There were still 23 minutes of extra time left and nervous moments ahead in a game so intense, so long, that even the referee got cramp but Barcelona were closer than ever now. And, when Messi slipped another gorgeous ball to Neymar to make it two in the last minute, they were there. For much of the night it had not looked as if they would get there. They had been down to 10 men for an hour and had to do it without Luis Suárez.
They had had to do it against a superb side too. Sevilla, winners of three consecutive Europa League titles, never know they are beaten. This was the first time in seven finals over the last decade. When the final whistle went, Sevilla’s supporters gave their players a gigantic reception at one end while Barcelona’s celebrated at the other.
“Since when does anyone win a final without suffering?” Luis Enrique had asked before this game. He knew. They had suffered from the start and the more so from the 35th minute when Javier Mascherano was sent off for pulling down Kévin Gameiro. It was only Barcelona’s second red card since Gerard Piqué was sent off in the Super Cup last August. Both have been shown to Mascherano and both by this referee, Carlos Del Cerro Grande.
The Argentinian watched from by the tunnel as Ever Banega’s free-kick was saved sharply by Marc André ter Stegen and an already difficult game seemed to shift further Sevilla’s way.
Until then this had been close but Sevilla might have been more satisfied, quick into the challenge and quicker to spring forward. The threat was clear when they broke and the first half’s best opportunity had fallen to Coke Andujar, but he could not finish from 10 yards.
The red card prompted Barcelona momentarily to shift Sergio Busquets to centre-back before, at half-time, putting on Jérémy Mathieu at centre-back and withdrawing Ivan Rakitic from midfield. The second period began with Banega striking the post, the ball travelling across the face of goal. Suárez then pulled his right hamstring and withdrew. Down on the bench he was in tears, with his participation in the Copa América at risk. Uruguay’s first game is only a fortnight away.
Out on the pitch Sevilla kept coming. “When you’re playing for a title your legs no longer feel heavy,” Vitolo had said before their 63rd game of the season. He was running at Barcelona, his team-mates too, and in two minutes Busquets blocked from both Gameiro and Gregorz Krychowiak. Piqué was everywhere, tackle after tackle after header. Sergio Escudero’s looped ball hit the bar, Gameiro sprinted into the area on the right and again Piqué went to ground; again the tackle was impeccably timed.
Yet it was not always desperate and at times it felt as if Barcelona were managing this well, notwithstanding being a man down. As the game went on that sensation grew. A Sevilla goal no longer seemed imminent and Neymar, Iniesta and Messi carried forward when they could, which was increasingly often. They took responsibility and occasionally took control too. Fleet of foot, the touch impressive, their runs usually ended with a tumble just as they threatened to get beyond Sevilla.
Barcelona grew frustrated at how few were blown as fouls as Sevilla stopped them any way they could. From one that was, on Iniesta, Sergio Rico saved Messi’s free-kick. Rico had to save another in the very last minute after Neymar had been brought down on the edge of the area by Banega who, like Mascherano, was then sent off.
Extra time beckoned, 10 against 10. It began with Gameiro’s shot blocked but then Messi saw Jordi Alba racing up the left. From near the centre circle he curled a wonderful delivery left-footed into the area; the ball bounced once and Alba put it beyond the reach of Sergio Rico.
There was more and it was mostly from Barcelona now. A Messi free-kick was pushed away, Piqué’s header saved and Rico made a double stop from Dani Alves and Busquets. Another red card followed, too, as Daniel Carriço was sent off for a wild challenge on Messi, who had been down often but never out. Messi then did it again, finding Neymar to score the second. The cup was heading back to Catalonia again.
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