Whilst much of the talk around Europe over the last couple of weeks has been about Barcelona and Real Madrid’s inability to reach the Champions League final, two of the teams in their shadow have made sure that there will be one all-Spanish final this season. Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will meet in the Europa league final on the May 9th in Bucharest.
Atletico’s season has been turned around by the appointment of Diego Simeone in December, after a run of poor form in the league that left them in danger of not qualifying for European football at all next season. As things stand now though they are in fifth place and still have a chance of getting into fourth and with it Champions League football next season.
Los Colcheneros have not finished outside the top 10 since 2005 and have twice finished inside the top four. Their consistency is even more remarkable considering the almost constant sales of their best players such as Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan. Also in this time they have proved their strength on the European stage by winning the Europa League in 2010 and then beating Champions league holders Inter Milan in the Super Cup later that year.
The main man behind Atletico’s success this season though is their new scoring sensation Radamel Falcao. Signed for a club record €40 million in the summer of 2011 after an incredible record of 73 goals in 83 games for Porto, he has lived up to expectations. His record of 33 goals in 46 games this season has proved his ability and the Colombia international is still improving. If Atletico have long-term ambitions to break into the Primera Division top four again and stay there, they must keep hold of players like Falcao.
Atletico’s run to the final has been fairly comfortable and scare free. They comfortably finished top of a group containing Udinese, Celtic and Rennes, before cruising past Lazio, Besiktas, Hannover 96 and maybe a little surprisingly, Valencia, winning home and away in every round.
There is no doubt they will face a stern test in the final though in the form of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. Former Argentina and Chile coach Bielsa joined at the start of this season and has turned the San Mames outfit into one of the most exciting and attacking teams in Europe. This style of football, which has already been compared to Barcelona’s, has seen Bielsa linked with the Chelsea and Camp Nou jobs in some quarters. Since finishing 17th in 2006-2007, the Basque team have made steady improvements year after year and currently sit tenth in the table; the appointment of Bielsa may be the final piece of the jigsaw.
Bilbao’s improvement this season was evident in the Spain squad for the friendly against Venezuela. Javi Martinez, Andoni Iraola, Fernando Llorente and Iker Munian were all included with only Barcelona having more players from a single club in the squad. Much like Atletico though, Bilbao must hold on to these players if they have long term ambitions of making the step up to Champions League football, but with a number of English clubs already being linked with 19-year-old Munian, Llorente and Martinez, this may be difficult.
Bilbao’s route to the final has been nothing short of exceptional. After coming top of a relatively easy group with the exception of big spending Paris Saint-Germain, they have upset some big European names in the knock out stages. After winning through on away goals against Lokomotiv Moscow they caused the upset of the competition by knocking out Manchester United. Incredible attacking performances home and away gave them victories in both games and in truth the 5-3 aggregate scoreline could have been much worse for the English champions. From then another high-scoring victory over Schalke followed although they did need a late Llorente goal to get past Sporting Lisbon in the semi-final.
There is no doubt that this could be one of the biggest seasons in Bilbao’s history with the chance of a cup double as they meet Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final later this month. Victory in both of these finals will certainly put Athletic Bilbao’s name on every European football fan’s lips.
Both teams attacking styles will surely mean a great spectacle and an open game in Romania’s capital city on Wednesday and it may come down to a battle between two of La Liga’s best strikers in Falcao and Llorente to determine who takes the Spanish bragging rights in Europe this year.
By Chris Newman