Guardiola aims to end Barcelona reign with cup win

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -Barcelona can cap four illustrious years under Pep Guardiola with a 14th trophy when it plays Athletic Bilbao in Friday's Copa del Rey final.

The match at Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon Stadium will be Guardiola's last in charge of the team, ending an unprecedented period of success for Barcelona since the former player took charge in 2008.

The 41-year-old Guardiola will be looking to finish the way he started, as a 4-1 cup victory over Athletic three years ago provided the first prize for his trophy cabinet.

Ready to hand over the coaching duties to his assistant and good friend Tito Vilanova, Guardiola will look at the game as an opportunity to cap a season that started well but finished poorly. Barcelona hasn't played a meaningful game in one month after it lost to eventual Champions League winner Chelsea in the semifinals, just days after losing to Real Madrid to surrender its three-year hold on the Spanish league.

"I've got the feeling we are very well prepared for this final," Guardiola said from the Camp Nou on Thursday. "A final is always there to be won."

A record 26th domestic cup will at least send Guardiola out on a high and would deliver a fourth trophy in this campaign after winning the Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup and Club World Cup.

While Lionel Messi looks to add to his unprecedented total of 72 goals in a season, Bilbao is chasing its first trophy since 1984 when it won a league-cup double.

Barcelona remains without injured striker David Villa and its defense is also depleted as Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Daniel Alves are all missing. Striker Alexis Sanchez returns from injury while backup goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto - who has started all cup games under Guardiola - should get the nod after missing the last game of the season with an ankle injury.

"The illnesses that befell players we love in this club were the worst thing, everything else turned out well," Guardiola said.

He summarized his time in charge with a reference to Abidal's long-running liver illness which forced the France defender to undergo a transplant in March.

"His departure is going to be dramatic for me," defender Gerard Pique said. "He'll leave a void but Tito will continue on and we'll do well. It's normal for eras to end in football."

Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa could also be seeing his term coming to an end.

Bielsa hasn't said whether he will continue next season, and the Argentine coach has refused to budge on the question until after the cup final.

Like Barcelona, Bilbao risks closing the season on a low, having lost 3-0 to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final. The Basque club will have welcomed a long layoff following the longest season of any Spanish club playing in Europe.

"We don't dwell on favorites," Bielsa said on Thursday. "After coming so close to a title already this is a fantastic opportunity that motivates us, we're fully optimistic on our chances."

The teams have combined to win the competition 48 times, and the matchup promises to provide unrelenting, attacking football, although a quick replant of turf at the Calderon following a Coldplay concert may hinder the players some.

"Athletic enjoys one advantage that we don't in that their team hasn't won any titles this season, so there is hunger there," Guardiola said. "It's going to be a nice final. They will attack and so will we."

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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