The moment that ultimately won this match, if it could be reduced to just one among so many, was like the last frame of a comic strip.
It’s 2-2 in extra time in the Super Cup and the team made up entirely of local boys have twice come from behind against the biggest team of all, somehow making it this far thanks to an improbable last-minute equaliser. The ball then falls at the feet of the striker who joined them as a kid and is playing in his 167th consecutive game. From the edge of the area, an implausible position, he hits an unstoppable shot which flies through the air, and rockets into the net.
It was, said Athletic Club’s Iñaki Williams at the end of an exhausting, exhilarating 120 minutes, “without doubt the best goal of my career” and he could not have placed it better if he had picked the ball up, leaned a ladder against the post, climbed up and put it there by hand.
It wouldn’t have drawn it better or chosen a better moment for it either. There was still a way to go, nerves to be shred, minutes to be seen out, and plenty of action – Unai Nuñez somehow missing from three yards; Ander Capa and Frenkie de Jong crashing into each other; Antoine Griezmann smashing a volley wide, his moment gone; a red card for Lionel Messi – but Athletic, who had defeated Real Madrid in the semi-final, were on course to beat Barcelona, soon covered in confetti.
Barcelona were complicit in their own demise yet make no mistake: this was Athletic’s night. Jordi Alba was directly involved in four goals but two of those were Athletic’s and defensively Barcelona disintegrated while in attack they created little and in the middle they were never in control. Not on the pitch; not on the bench either. Nor did they react when they needed to, the personality required absent.
Their collapse, the impotence that engulfed them, the desperation, was expressed best by the late sending off for Messi for hitting out at Asier Villalibre – his first for the club. Messi walked head down, and soon was gone. This may be the least of the trophies that Barcelona chase but it was also the most likely and this was a failure and painful one.
As for Villalibre, the man whose goal had taken this match to extra time before Williams won it, he finished the night out in the middle of the pitch playing the trumpet in celebration. For Athletic, deserved winners, there was joy, even if something was missing: this was a trophy raised in an empty stadium by the club that, along with their Basque rivals and scheduled opponents Real Sociedad, refused to play last year’s Copa del Rey final without their fans.
Still, this remains a huge moment for them and one their supporters will cherish, despite the barge remaining tied up rather than taken down the river in celebration as tradition dictates. For their new manager Marcelino García Toral too: he has been in charge for just three games – against Barcelona, Madrid and Barcelona again – and already he has a winners’ medal.
When William’s shot went in, he went wild on the touchline here; at the end they all did and rightly so. Twice they had fought back from behind and then, in extra time they had found a goal that Oliver Atom, Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse would have embraced. One that delivered justice. It had been a long night and if it had looked like victory would escape Athletic at times, that would have been cruel. They were, put simply, the better side, led by Williams and in particular Iker Munian, rising above the rest.
They had been from the start. While it may have been a minor detail, the way Ander Capa twice pushed opponents off the ball inside five minutes seemed to say something. And yet this was not just strength and determination: it was control too and Athletic took the game to Barcelona as they had done to Madrid in the semi-final. Athletic had the first shot, Marc Andre ter Stegen turning over Capa’s rising effort, while it wasn’t until eight minutes before half time when Messi struck Barcelona’s first effort over from 30 yards.
And yet then, just after Raúl García had headed over Oscar De Marcos’s cross at the other end, Barcelona scored. Messi’s pass took seven players out and found Alba, running into the area on the left. He looked for Messi’s arcing run towards him, seeking to cut it back into his path: that old familiar routine. Inigo Martínez and Dani García were alert, so too Yeray, all three diving at Messi’s feet. The rebound came to Griezmann to finish.
Barcelona had the lead but lost it again in 92 seconds, not one of their players touching the ball again before Athletic equalised. And if Messi’s pass then had been good, Williams’s was even better now. Beautifully clipped, it floated and dropped behind Alba, where De Marcos ran in and, first time on the bounce, sidefooted past ter Stegen.
Athletic thought they had added to it only for Raúl García’s header to be ruled out by VAR for the tightest of offsides, but they were undeterred, Williams thumping just wide soon after. There was a slowness to Barcelona’s play, a lack of conviction and yet they again took the lead when Ousmane Dembele and Alba suddenly burst into life, accelerating to provide for Griezmann to get his second with thirteen minutes to go.
It was done, or so it seemed. Fatigue took hold, legs grew heavier. But Athletic weren’t finished yet and nor was this story.
With Ronald Koeman making changes in an attempt to run down the last few seconds, clinging on to one handle of that trophy, Asier Villalibre appeared and volleyed Munian’s free-kick into the net. He had been on the pitch six minutes and now he had ensured he would be there for many more, the night only just beginning.
The Spanish Super Cup final was going into extra time and that final frame.