By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor
The script seemed written. Barcelona would win the Copa del Rey on Friday night and end Pep Guardiola's glorious reign in spectacular style. Poor Athletic Bilbao appeared to have little say in the matter.
And so it proved. Guardiola, citing fatigue and claiming he had no more to give the Catalan club, announced his decision to step down at the end of last month, following damaging defeats to Real Madrid and Chelsea in La Liga and the Champions League.
In those games, his team had looked tired, too. But they didn't on Friday. This was vintage Barcelona, a last reminder of everything there had been to admire about this special team which is often considered to be the finest footballing side in history.
Guardiola's staggering statistics
|1||Pep was bestowed with the Catalan of the Year Award after his remarkable debut season with Barca in 2009|
|2||He claimed two Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups and two Super Cups during his tenure|
|3||Guardiola also led Barca to three successive La Liga titles between 2008 and 2011|
|14||Pep's side amassed 14 of a possible 19 trophies in his four-year tenure|
|247||Guardiola coached Barca in 247 games (out of a possible 254). His side dominated possession in every single one, winning 179 and losing just 21|
As he appeared on the bench before the match, Guardiola appeared fresh and full of energy, perhaps relieved of some of the stress and tension after announcing his decision - and having little in the way of competitive football in the last month as well.
On the pitch, the players also looked recharged. Barca flew out of the blocks and immediately peppered the Athletic goal. Within three minutes, they were ahead as Pedro dispatched a rebound.
Already the signs were ominous for the Basques, who had lost the Europa League final 3-0 recently after conceding early on to Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao. And unfortunately for them, history was about to repeat itself.
But better sides than Athletic would have been unable to halt Barca on Friday. Determined to leave their leader's legacy at a high, Pep's players produced their finest performance in quite some time, stringing together long spells of possession, pressing immediately to recover the ball when they lost it and forcing Athletic to defend deep.
It was all over within 25 minutes. Lionel Messi added a second from a tight angle (his 73rd of an incredible campaign) with his right foot following a wonderful pass from Andres Iniesta and Pedro made it 3-0 with a lovely low finish from the edge of the box to beat Gorka at his right-hand post. It was too good for Athletic.
Athletic saw a decent penalty appeal turned down after Fernando Llorente looked to have been fouled by Gerard Pique, and the Basques improved considerably in the second half. However, they missed two clear chances and even if they had taken them, it always looked as if Barca had another gear in them in any case.
|CARTOON OF THE DAY|
|Guardiola rides off into the Spanish sunset after claiming Copa del Rey|
It seemed fitting, then, that Bielsa's Bilbao should be the rivals as Guardiola closed the door on his era-defining and trophy-laden spell as coach of the Catalan club.
It had all begun against Athletic, as well, as this team claimed the first of their 14 trophies against the Basques three years ago at Mestalla, with victory over the northern outfit in this very same competition.
That 4-1 success paved the way for a tremendous treble triumph and Pep's players made it six trophies out of six by claiming the Spanish Supercopa, the Uefa Super Cup and the Club World Cup early in his second season.
Disappointments followed as Barca exited the Champions League to Inter and lost out to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey. Guardiola, though, remained philosophical. "In its history, this club has lost a lot more than it has won," he said.
But not with Pep. Two more league titles arrived, two more Spanish Supercopas, another Champions League, Club World Cup, Uefa Super Cup and on Friday, finally, a last Copa del Rey, closing the circle to claim a 14th trophy from only 19 available in his four-year tenure. Unlike those before him, Guardiola had won a lot more than he lost at Barca. The club's second-most successful coach, Johan Cruyff, had racked up 11 titles in eight years. Pep surpassed his former boss in less than half that time.
But now it's time to go. "I leave satisfied," Guardiola revealed afterwards. "I am happy to have been part of this process and this philosophy which I only continued." It was a huge understatement and mark of modesty from a man who made Barca the greatest in the game. He will be sorely missed at Camp Nou.