On Thursday Barcelona will travel less than 15 minutes east from the Camp Nou, a trip they normally do once a season. This time, though, they won’t enter the 40,500-capacity RCD Stadium but the small municipal ground that lies in its shadow; their opponents won’t be their city rivals Espanyol, relegated last season, but UE Cornellà from Spain’s Segunda B, the regionalised, semi-professional third tier where 102 teams are spread across 10 groups.
“Our pitch is almost half the size of the one at Camp Nou, and it’s artificial grass – that will be in our favour,” the Cornellà midfielder Àlex Pla says as he prepares for the last-32 Copa del Rey tie.
For the 29-year-old Pla, who at 17 almost signed for Manchester City, playing Barcelona is in one way nothing new. “Since I was nine, I faced Barça at least twice every season,” he says. With Gramenet, Espanyol and then Cornellà he played tight, competitive games against Barcelona youth sides that included the current first-teamer Sergi Roberto. “Sergi always scored a lot against us, but you never knew how the games would go, and we won quite a few.”
Playing Barcelona’s first team, however, is completely different, and getting here has been a journey, even if they are just down the road. There has been nothing normal about Cornellà’s Copa del Rey run, which has seen them play in the middle of the night in Tenerife and beat La Liga leaders Atlético Madrid 1-0 at home. For Pla it’s also been a fight against Covid-19.
When Cornellà landed in Tenerife to play Marino, they did so without their equipment: it had not made the flight. “Because of Covid there weren’t many planes flying to Tenerife, so we didn’t know if it would come at all,” Pla says. “We didn’t know if we would play the match or not. We even contemplated buying new football boots with our own money and playing in Merino’s away kit.”
The equipment finally arrived and at 11:30pm the match kicked off. A few minutes before 1am Pla scored the only goal. “It’s the latest and earliest goal I’ve ever scored,” he says. “I’ve never played a match that late before.”
When Cornellà drew Atlético in the next round, Pla says it was a joyous moment “If we could have picked our opponent, we would have picked Atlético. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get to play against players on the very highest level, to get to compete against them.”
Pla insists they truly believed they could beat the best team in Spain. “We’ve seen it many times: the teams from La Liga won’t always use their best players, and you think of when Alcorcón beat Real Madrid 4-0, what Mirandés have done [reaching the 2012 semi-finals], it makes you believe.”
But the excitement of facing Atleti was short-lived for Pla, who tested postive for Covid days before the match. “At that moment the last thing I thought about was the game but the health of my family and anyone I had been in contact with. But of course I was angry about missing it; it’s maybe the only opportunity you will ever get to play against an opponent like that.”
He sent a message to his teammates, telling them not to worry about him but that they had better win because he wanted to play Barça.
“That was a joke, because I have always been a Barça fan. But they won and then we were drawn against Barcelona. But to be honest, the match I really wanted to play was the one against Nastic Tarragona, the weekend after Atleti. The cup is exciting, but what really matters for us is the league, to reach our goal of winning promotion to Segunda A.”
The last couple of days have been a wait for test results. On Saturday Pla got positives for having antibodies, on Sunday he travelled with the team to play away to Olot. “We had a lot of players missing, and had to bring several youth players as well. I hadn’t even trained with the team yet but was there as a back-up.”
Against Barcelona he hopes more players will be back but says this isn’t the best moment for the team. Covid and injuries have hit hard. Pla has a uphill battle to get ready physically and there are tests he needs to pass under Copa del Rey protocols to be allowed to play. If he does, one thing’s for sure: he’ll enjoy it.
“I’m really excited, to tell the truth. I am 29, I’ve been playing football since I was three and I’ve always been a Barça fan. This is an experience I really want to live.”
After knocking out Atlético, they know beating Barcelona isn’t impossible. “The key will be to defend well, give them as few opportunities as possible like we did Atlético. And for us to take advantage of a counterattack or a strategic move to score.”
It will be against a Barcelona without the suspended Lionel Messi. “Of course, I would have liked to play against him,” Pla says. “I go crazy just watching him play on TV sitting on my couch; imagine being just a few metres from him – it would have been amazing. It’s a shame he won’t play but at the same time it’s better for us.”