Cast your mind back four years. The new Copa del Rey, in its first season following a radical revamp, had just emphatically lived up to its billing as a format that would deliver shocks and surprises as all four single-legged Quarter Finals went the way of the underdog.
Inspired by Martin Ødegaard and Alexander Isak, Real Sociedad’s young side produced a dazzling performance at the Santiago Bernabeu to knock out Real Madrid 4-3 in the last eight. They went on to see off Andoni Iraola’s second tier Mirandes 3-1 on aggregate in the Semi-Finals to book a first Copa del Rey Final appearance in 32 years.
On the other side of the draw, Athletic Club were also through to the Semis having beaten Barcelona courtesy of a solitary Stoppage Time goal at San Mames in their Quarter Final tie. Diego Martinez’s impressive Granada side provided the opposition and looked like they might edge a tight tie when German Sanchez put them 2-1 up on aggregate with fifteen minutes to go in the 2nd Leg at Los Carmenes.
Yuri Berchiche had other ideas, popping up with a vital 81st minute away goal to set up the first all-Basque Copa del Rey Final since 1927 when Real Union met Arenas Club de Getxo.
Almost a century on, supporters in Bilbao and Donostia were dreaming of taking their fierce yet friendly rivalry to Seville with the tantalising prospect of tens of thousands of Basque fans descending on the Andalusian capital for the biggest ever derby between Athletic Club and Real Sociedad.
Sadly and despite the best efforts of the Spanish football authorities and both clubs to make it happen, that would never come to pass. Even by the time of the 2nd Legs of the 2020 Semi-Finals, Covid-19 was already sweeping across Spain and the country would go into one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns the following week.
The Final would ultimately be pushed back a year with the hope that fans could attend, but would still end up being played behind closed doors in April 2021 with Real Sociedad triumphing 1-0 at Cartuja thanks to a Mikel Oyarzabal penalty.
Fast forward to 2024 and the Semi-Final lineup raises the real possibility that supporters of the Basque Country’s big two will finally get their day in the Andalusian sun.
2024 Copa del Rey Semi Finals
Mallorca vs Real Sociedad – Muriqi & Take the returning dangermen
Unlike the rest of the competition, the Semi-Finals are played over two legs and Real Sociedad are favourites to prevail over Mallorca. The Balearic Islanders will be desperate to make home advantage count in this week’s 1st Leg ahead of the return in Donostia on February 27th.
Javier Aguirre’s side certainly appear to have a taste for the cup after a First Half goal blitz saw them race into a 3-0 lead against Girona in their Quarter Final with Abdon Prats further writing his name into Mallorca folklore with a brace.
A recently revamped and much improved Son Moix will be hoping to roar their team onto another upset on Tuesday night. Prats is likely to drop to the bench with talisman Vedat Muriqi now fit again after a lengthy lay-off to lead Mallorca’s charge for a first Copa del Rey triumph since 2003 when Samuel Eto’o and Walter Pandiani were scoring for fun in a memorable cup run that saw them past the likes of Real Madrid and Depor before a 3-0 Final victory over Recreativo Huelva.
It won’t be quite so easy this year. Mallorca are the rank outsiders going into the last four and Friday night’s 4-0 capitulation against Athletic Club in LaLiga was hardly the ideal preparation. They’re only one place above the relegation zone in the league, but La Real will still be expecting a really tough tie against a team that is capable of packing the centre of the pitch and frustrating Imanol’s team who haven’t exactly been scoring freely of late.
In fact, five of Real Sociedad’s last 11 matches in all competitions have ended 0-0 which might be a taster of what to expect in what’s likely to be a tight and cagey 1st Leg. Imanol will be hoping the timely return of Take Kubo from AFC Asian Cup duty can spark a bit more life into his team’s attacking play after successive goalless weekends in LaLiga against Rayo Vallecano and Girona.
Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Club – A tale of two fortresses
The presence of Atletico Madrid in the last four makes the prospect of an all Basque Final look slightly less likely than it did four years ago. That being said, anyone who witnessed Athletic’s utterly dominant league showing against Atleti at San Mames in December will have reason to believe that the Basque giants are more than capable of emerging victorious over two legs.
One thing that does look certain, is that home advantage is going to be of massive importance in this tie.
Atletico Madrid’s record at the Estadio Metropolitano is formidable. They’ve dropped just two league points at home over the past twelve months and have also won all of their home cup matches this season, defeating Real Madrid and Sevilla in the Copa del Rey as well as all of their Champions League opponents.
They’ve been scoring freely too with Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata forming a deadly strike duo with 37 goals between them in all competitions while there’s plenty of depth which should help them through this busy period with Memphis Depay and Angel Correa combining to see off Sevilla late on in the last round.
Ernesto Valverde will need to devise a game-plan that at least ensures Athletic go into the Second Leg at worst only a goal behind. Anything better than that and they’ll really fancy their chances back in Bilbao in three weeks time.
At San Mames, Athletic have reeled off eight wins on the bounce in all competitions including a 4-2 Extra Time victory over Barcelona in the Quarters when Iñaki Williams was whizzed back in from AFCON duty to play a starring role off the bench.
The stage is certainly set for two cracking Copa del Rey ties with Mallorca and Atletico Madrid hoping to make home advantage count this week ahead of daunting trips to the Basque Country at the end of February.