National Arena, Bucharest
May 9, 2012 – 1945 GMT
The Europa league final that will take place in Bucharest has a touch of irony to it. Pundits and fans across the world were busy predicting an all Spanish final in the Champions League. Now we do have an all Spanish final, but ironically it is not between Barcelona and Real Madrid and it is not in Champions League. Instead Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will fight it out for Europe’s second biggest prize.
For many the Europa League might not hold any substantial grandness, specially for so called ‘big’ clubs, who often consider this to be nothing more than an unnecessary distraction. But despite such apathy, the Europa League still remains a top European honour, a route for teams who normally don’t get the spotlight to have their own moment of glory. In fact for some, the Europa League has in many ways been more entertaining than the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid are still in hunt for a 4th place finish in the La Liga, mathematically that is. That in many ways has prevented Simeone from resting any of his top players before the Europa League final. But Atletico have been here before. In fact they won the Europa League just two seasons back in 2009-2010 beating Fulham in the final. They will start as favorites on paper, but as a famous line goes “Games are not played on paper, are they?“
Athletic Bilbao on the other hand have had a contrasting La Liga and Europa League. They have faltered in domestic league and presently stand in 10th position. There poor performance in the league has been inexplicable. In Europe though, they have been as good as it gets. The story of Bilbao would make a wonderful motion picture. Marcelo Bielsa is widely accepted as one of the best managers around. He has moulded this talented team and made out of Basque players into a well oiled machine. If they win the trophy today, it will go down as the biggest achievement in the club’s history.
TheHardTackle brings you the preview of this mouth-watering clash between Los Leones and Los Colchoneros.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Diego Simeone does have some selection headaches before the big game. Tiago Mendes will miss the final, following his dismissal in the 2nd leg of the semi-final against Valencia. The midfielder is likely to be replaced by Gabi in the team. There are still concerns over Luis Perea’s fitness. The 33-year-old defender has been suffering from a thigh injury and is unlikely to take any part in this match.
Portueguese right back Silvio is out for a long time, but the good news is that Atletico’s captain Antonio Lopez is expected to be fit for this match.
The problem for Simeone is that he was unable to rest any of his important players against Malaga last weekend as they are still in contention for the 4th spot in the table. Only two changes are expected in the starting line-up from last weekend. Gabi will replace Mendes in the midfield and Turan (the only player rested last weekend) will come in the place of Salvio.
Atletico Madrid will start in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Suarez and Gabi sitting in front of the defense. Turan will start on the left with Diego as the play-maker and Adrian on the right. Turan is threat while going forward and his link-up with Falcao has caused a lot of problems to teams in Europe this season.
Juanfran and Luis will have to be at their best when they come up against the Bilbao duo of Muniain and Susaeta, specially on the counter attacks. They will be worried about leaving too much space behind them while moving forward. Suarez and Gabi will play an important role in this aspect, as they will have to cover the space left behind by the advancing fullbacks.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Courtois (GK); Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Luis; Suarez, Gabi; Adrian, Diego, Turan; Falcao
Marcelo Bielsa’s biggest concern ahead of the final will be the fitness of defender Fernando Amorebieta. The defender will undergo a late fitness test before the match. Borja Ekiza is likely to get a start if Amorebieta fails to make it. Xabier Castillo and Aitor Ocio are out injured as well.
With nothing much to play for in the La Liga, Bielsa had the luxury of resting his players in the last two league matches. This will certainly give them an advantage over Atletico Madrid.
Bilbao, similar to Atletico Madrid will start with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Javi Martinez will start in the center of defense along with Amorbieta or Ekiza. Iraola will start as right back and Aurtenetxe at left back. Iturraspe and Ander (who wasn’t rested this weekend) will start in front of the defense.
Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente represent Bilbao’s biggest threat going forward. The pair has scored nine goals between themselves in Europa League so far. Bielsa will hope these two can drag the team over the line, when it matters the most. Bilbao are a wonderful counter attacking side, with Muniain and Susaeta providing lot of pace and directness in the wide areas. There main concern has been their defense which has leaked goals throughout the season, both in Europe and La Liga. Bielsa may ask his team to sit deep and hit the Madrid side on the counter.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz (GK); Iraola, Amorebieta, Martinez, Aurtenetxe; Ander, Iturraspe; Susaeta, Marcos, Muniain; Llorente
Key Match Facts
- This is the sixth all-Spanish final of a major European trophy and the second in the UEFA Cup/Europa League (after Sevilla vs Espanyol in 2006/07).
- None of the last 13 meetings between the sides has ended in a draw (five wins for Athletic, eight for Atlético).
- Atlético are currently tied with Ajax for the longest ever winning run in all European competitions (11 games, excluding qualifiers and Intertoto Cup).
- This will be the two sides’ first meeting in Europe, and their first in a cup competition since the 1991/92 Copa del Rey (Atlético won 1-0 at home and 3-0 away).
- Following this match, only Italy (9) will have produced more UEFA Cup/Europa League winners than Spain (7).
TheHardTackle’s Players to Watch Out For
Radamel Falcao (Atletico Madrid)
The Colombian striker has been in wonderful form this season. He has scored a total of 30 goals already, seven of which have come in the European competition. In fact, Falcao has scored 27 goals in 28 Europa League games in his career so far.
The prolific striker has attracted a lot of attention from top clubs across Europe and it will be interesting to see how long the Spanish side can hold to to their prized asset. Whatever his future holds, Falcao is sure to have an impact in this mouth-watering clash.
Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao)
This clash between the two Spanish sides will showcase two of the best strikers in the world at the moment. While Atletico will be spearheaded by Falcao, Bilbao will be led by Fernando Llorente.
The Spanish forward has scored 27 goals this season (in all competitions), and many believe he is on the verge of securing a big move. Llorente has a very good record against Atletico in La Liga; in fact he has scored more goals only against Valencia. Bilbao will be looking forward to a big contribution from their front-man, as his composure and physical attributes can unsettle the Madrid based side’s defense.
Atletico Madrid 2-3 Athletic Bilbao
It will be an open game of football as neither side is known for its resilient defense. In fact with two team boasting of such firepower up front, there will be goals galore. Atletico Madrid might just look a stronger side on the paper, but for Bilbao their whole season has been about success in cup competition. Also the fact that Bielsa was able to rest all his players before the final will give his side an added advantage. Expect Bilbao to win this by a small margin, in a game that will be worthy of a Champions League final. Hold on to your seats!
TheHardTackle’s Blast From The Past