Copa del Rey: Betis's Pellegrini, Valencia's Bordalas reach first Cup final via very different paths, styles

Between them, Jose Bordalas and Manuel Pellegrini have been coaching for 63 years at 26 clubs across 31 spells, and taken charge of 2,447 games -- but never this one. Very different roads, and very different methods too, have brought them to the same place. The Magic Island, they call it. And while most days that's a laugh, on Saturday it will feel that way: The match that's supposed to be the most significant in any Spanish season, handed a weekend of its own, really will be.

For Valencia and Real Betis -- two huge clubs, the fifth and fourth biggest in the country, respectively, when it comes to fandom, according to estimated government statistics -- the Copa del Rey final (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) is not just the biggest game of their current seasons, it is the biggest game for many seasons. For their managers, it could even be the most significant single match they have ever taken charge of. Neither Pellegrini nor Bordalas, men whose coaching careers go back further than anyone in LaLiga's, who have not just achieved but overachieved just about everywhere, have won a major trophy here.

They have never been in a Copa del Rey final before.

And now here they are, three decades after setting out, via very different routes and with very different ideas, firm in their convictions and characters. There is much that is shared, but this final is a clash of styles too, a neat illustration that there is not always a right way, but many ways. And in the end, only one winner.

- Watch every game of the Copa del Rey and LaLiga live on ESPN+
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

"I remember that first day as if it was yesterday," said David Bauza, one of Bordalas's players when he made his managerial debut, in the sports daily AS. "From the first day, he said what mattered was: win, win, win and win."

He did, often. That was 1993, and it would take Bordalas 19 years to leave Spain's east coast and the Comunidad Valenciana -- he coached Alicante, Benidorm, Eldense, Mutxavista, Novelda, Hercules and Elche before finally turning up at Alcorcon, near Madrid, in 2012 -- and 23 to finally get the chance to coach in the first division, even though he had quite literally earned it before (with Alaves in 2015-16, before being dismissed that summer). In 2021, he headed east again, taking over Valencia.

If this was all he had ever wanted, the same wasn't true with his opposite number, at least not to start with, and the miles covered were different too. While Bordalas didn't cross into Castile or Aragon, Pellegrini crossed the Atlantic from South America, never to return.

When he finished playing, Pellegrini had planned to go into civil engineering, not coaching. But he began his management career at Universidad de Chile, where he had played for 13 years, a journey that took him to the Chile Cup with Universidad Catolica in 1995, then Ecuador and Argentina. He won the league in England, one of 13 trophies across his career so far, and went to China.

It was his time in Spain, though, that established him as an elite coach, over five astonishingly successful years at Villarreal. That team came within a missed penalty of perhaps reaching the Champions League final in 2006. His Malaga team had been within seconds of a semifinal. His Betis team is now 90 minutes away from only a fifth trophy ever. There was, however, no silverware. Nor was there at Real Madrid, the one place he might have expected it. That year, they were knocked out of the Cup by tiny Alcorcon.

A tough, aggressive defender who always considered other players the ones with talent but who won an international call-up, Pellegrini took a conscious decision to change in order to be a coach -- precisely because he saw his own flaws, because he thought that he was a beneficiary of better players. He imposed calm and control upon himself, trying to tame the temper that now only very occasionally appears on the surface. He also imposed a technical game upon his players, only "imposed" might not be the best word.

"Something I learned when I was starting out was about the control of the emotions. No one can make the right decision when they are emotionally unbalanced," he said. "On the bench, if you are constantly appealing and complaining, then when you have to make a big call, you can't."

Pellegrini continued: "The origin of my approach perhaps comes from the fact that my playing career was based on great effort, but I noticed that the ones that usually won were the technically gifted ones. They were the ones that made the difference because of their talent as opposed to those who just applied the effort. So, in my playing systems I have always given priority to improving the technical side of all my players. My view of football as a sport is also that it should be a spectacle.

"There has to be order, but I divide the pitch up into three, and in the third part you try to give freedom to your players to show their creativity and their individuality so that they can go one on one with defenders, go past people, try a wall pass. Fail, maybe, but try it."

Maybe, maybe not. It's worked, that's for sure: This is Betis's first Copa del Rey final in 17 years, only their fifth ever.

Bordalas, too, allows a degree of freedom in that final third -- although in his case, the divide is four bands, not three -- but how his teams get there is different, and his personality is too. He has also shifted since he was a player; like Pellegrini, he is perhaps inspired more by what he lacked than what he had. Only he headed in the other direction. A technical footballer, albeit one who never played above Tercera, his teams have been harder, more direct, more aggressive, less inclined to play their way out. Instead, they are defensive-minded, built for the counter.

In terms of possession, only four teams in LaLiga have had more of the ball than Betis and only three have had less than Valencia. Valencia have committed more fouls than anyone; Betis are 14th. At times it has been exaggerated, but with Bordalas's teams there is a heavy dose of what the Spanish call the "other football" -- which is at least more polite than other descriptions. If you're being courteous, you might call it the "dark arts." Bordalas's teams are often those with the ball in play the least.

There have been few moments more comic than watching Ryan Babel hammily throw himself to the ground and roll around, emulating the diving and faking that he saw from his opponents when Ajax played Bordalas's Getafe team in the Europa League in 2020.

"We need to be cool headed and don't fall into the trap of their the provocations and pounding," Pellegrini said after Betis's midweek defeat to Elche. "They are a difficult opponent that like to play closed-down. Hopefully it will be a good football game but it depends if both teams go in willing to play a good game."

The Betis boss added on Friday, "I never offered a criticism. I reflected a style of football that the club has: they have a very defined, very physical, strong style."

Volcanic on the touchline, seeking vindication in the press room and inspiring loyalty in the dressing room, Bordalas demands aggressiveness and fight. His instructions are clear, simple, but absolutely non-negotiable. There are moments when he has been turned into a caricature and that discourse has clearly and quite rightly hurt a manager who regularly rails against what he sees as the ease with which his team gets accused. Not least because it has followed him around his career, denying him the recognition for what have been extraordinary achievements.

"It's funny that the style is still talked about before the game has even started," Bordalas said on Friday, "accusing us of things that are not true, I imagine with the intention of conditioning [the referee]. They're disrespectful and out of place."

It's not just that his accomplishments have been dismissed, either: It has directly impacted upon his career. When he took Alaves up but didn't get the chance to lead them into the first division, it was hard to avoid the feeling that they felt that going up was one thing, but the way they went up was another: that his approach was all well and good for Segunda, but not Primera. And so, he went to Getafe and proved it worked fine, taking them to the edge of the Champions League. Which isn't to say that it ended the criticism -- it didn't. Nor did it change him.

Pellegrini knows that: He has impressed upon his players not to allow the battle to change the way they play, nor to fall into traps laid and forget their football. It is their chance, after all. Something the club has waited so long for.

For Bordalas, Valencia was like a homecoming, in more ways than one. A sense that here at last, after almost 30 years since starting at the very bottom, was the opportunity others had been handed sooner. The club have embraced that identity a little. Even in preseason, directors were insisting that he fits their identity. An old phrase has been dusted off: Valencia are bronco y copero -- a feisty cup team, all fight. It hasn't been easy; they have struggled in the league, and frankly, it seems likely that Bordalas might not continue next season -- a week ago, he said he was "leaving my health here" -- but here they are, in another final, another battle.

Valencia have been there before, just two years ago with a team that was immediately broken up, but for Bordalas this is a first. For Pellegrini, too. All those games, but not this one. They've come a long way, travelling different paths to the same destination, different identities in search of the same objective, determined to be themselves, and now, this is it. Sixty-three years in 90 minutes.