Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs. Their kits are almost identical, as are their names. Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.
The similarities end there.
A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque. Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town. Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños. In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.
So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”. In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights. This night was no different for Radamel Falcao. The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort . His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.
It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid. Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.
But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.
A couple of side bars:
– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high. Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup. At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.
– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season. After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season. He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending. But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday. Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…