FEATURE | Copa del Rey magic returns to Spain

Alongside the three wise men, the magic of the Copa del Rey has hit Spain this week.

And it is fair to say that, since the authorities decided to drop the two-legged format at the start of last season, the tournament has become more thrilling.

Indeed, Ibiza’s stunning 5-2 victory over the in-form Celta Vigo on Tuesday evening was a clear example of this. The home side went 3-0 up after just half an hour of football played.

To add to the magic, fans have been allowed in some of these fixtures (including the Ibiza one), giving the matches that extra feeling of both passion and normality in this Covid-stricken world.

Incredibly, in the 90th minute, at 4-2, Celta Vigo had a penalty to cut the gap to one goal. Striker Santi Mina missed and Ibiza scored a fifth to wrap up a victory they will never forget.

On Wednesday night, La Liga leaders Atlético Madrid were also knocked out of the competition, losing 1-0 against Segunda B side Cornellà.

The Catalan minnows, who count Jordi Alba as one of their former youth players, play in a stadium with a maximum capacity of 1,500 and, until 2014, had never been higher than the Third Division.

Whilst many of Atlético’s key players were rested, ahead of matches against Athletic Club, Sevilla and Valencia, the likes of Saúl, Kondogbia, Torreira, Correa, Giménez and Felipe all started for Diego Simeone’s side.

This was a case of deja-vu as last season, Los Colchoneros were defeated by another Segunda B side, Cultural Leonesa.

Córdoba, another Segunda B side, also knocked out La Liga opposition in Getafe this week. With the new format, even when the so-called underdogs lose, they still give their all. And it shows.

Primera side Real Valladolid had to work extremely hard in order to beat Marbella FC 3-2 in extra-time. Not only was the result close, but the match was everything you would want from a cup tie.

Former Real Madrid midfielder Estaban Granero gave Marbella the lead, before two goals from the Pucelanos gave them a 2-1 lead.

A 92nd minute equaliser from the home side forced extra-time before Óscar Plano scored his second and gave the victory to Ronaldo Nazário’s Valladolid.

Elche struggled to a 1-0 victory over La Nucía, Levante 2-1 against Portugalete, and Granada 2-1 against Cultural Leonesa. Similar, nail-biting matches were witnessed last season.

One of the most memorable encounters of last season’s Copa occurred in the city of Salamanca, where Unionistas threw everything at Real Madrid, a game reminiscent of the giant-killing ties in the English FA Cup.

Going 1-0 down to a rare Gareth Bale goal, Álvaro Romero hit a sublime shot to give the home side an equaliser, before an own goal and another from Madrid in the 93rd minute put the final scoreline at 3-1.

The giant-killers were ultimately to be Second Division side Mirandés, who made the semi-final of the competition, narrowly missing out on the final after losing 2-1 against Real Sociedad.

On their way to the last four, the side from Burgos dispatched some of La Liga’s best sides in Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal.

Although the 2019/20 final has yet to be played, because both clubs wanted to wait for fans to be allowed in the stadium, Athletic Club will face Real Sociedad in the first all-Basque final at some stage.

The prospect of an all-Basque final has captured the imagination of many.

As well as the potential for giant-killing, this new format of the Copa del Rey can help curb the domination exerted by Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spanish football.

Whilst Los Blancos have only won two Copa del Rey’s since 1992, Barcelona had, before last season, played in each of the previous five finals.

This is not to say the old format did not have any upsets or was completely dominated by the Spanish duopoly.

Mirandés themselves had already reached the quarter-final stage in 2014/15, after defeating Málaga and Deportivo La Coruña before being convincingly beaten by Sevilla 5-0 over two legs.

Nobody could forget Alcorcón’s stunning 4-0 victory over Real Madrid in the 2009/10 season, in which a side including Raúl, Karim Benzema, Guti and Raúl Albiol struggled.

Indeed, whilst the Copa del Rey is undoubtedly more exciting and competitive after dropping the double legged format, to say that it was a boring competition would be to overlook its recent history.

Between 1999 and 2008 neither Real nor Barça won any of the finals disputed; Real Zaragoza, Valencia and Espanyol won two apiece during this period whilst Deportivo La Coruña, Sevilla and Mallorca all managed to lift the trophy.

Notwithstanding this, there is no doubt that this season’s Copa del Rey has already delivered some magical moments and that the change from two-legged ties to knockout rounds has helped increase its competitiveness.

The fact that so many upsets are taking place in league matches, with games being played largely behind closed doors, must also be considered.

The three kings visited Spain this week and so did the Copa del Rey.

Long may it continue. 

James Felton

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