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Europa League Final: Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao Set for Spanish Showcase

Michael CummingsWorld Football Lead WriterAugust 30, 2016

Europa League Final: Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao Set for Spanish Showcase

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    Europe's second-tier knockout competition reaches its climax Wednesday when Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao meet in the Europa League final.

    The match is set for 2:45 p.m. ET at Bucharest's National Arena. While we wait for what promises to be a thrilling, wide-open contest, there's plenty of news to catch up on around the web.

    You know all about the big scorers and exciting attackers like Atletico's Radamel Falcao and Athletic's Iker Muniain, Oscar De Marcos and Fernando Llorente.

    But there are other interesting stories out there, and we've gathered them all right here.

    So find a comfortable chair and read on…

Atletico's Loan Duo

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    Thibaut Courtois and Diego have been two of the key figures in Atletico Madrid's run to the Europa League final.

    Courtois (pictured), the team's first-choice keeper, has played more minutes during Atletico's Europa campaign than anyone else. Diego, meanwhile, has provided six assists.

    Both players, though, are loanees. Courtois joined on from Chelsea before the season, and Diego from VfL Wolfsburg.

    Both could be in their final days as Atletico players, and that makes Wednesday's final an intriguing proposition.

    Diego told UEFA.com:

    Finals are special because you don't play them often in your career. You need to enjoy moments like these; it's a pleasure playing a match like this. It's a privilege and I hope to win it. That is the most important thing.

    Courtois called his loan spell a valuable experience.

    I have improved in every sense: in terms of my playing skills, the way I kick the ball. I have to continue developing everything, though—I'm only 19 and at this age you can still improve in every department.

Eternal Memory

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    Athletic Bilbao have a glorious history, having won Spain's La Liga eight times and the Copa del Rey on 23 occasions.

    But it's been a different tale in Europe, where Athletic have never won a single trophy.

    Midfielder Javi Martinez, who has been linked with Arsenal, Barcelona and Manchester United, said winning a European trophy would be a memory he won't soon forget:

    If a club like this has never won a European trophy and they have a chance now, that could be a great memory to cherish for eternity. We need to be aware of that, so that we regard this final as something historic.

Classic Meetings

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    Atletico and Athletic have met in several classic encounters through the years, and UEFA.com has compiled a list of some of the best.

    The list includes Athletic's 4-3 league win at Atletico from 1930. Here's a teaser:

    Needing to win to avoid a final-day relegation fight, the hosts took a 3-1 first-half lead thanks to Ciriaco Cuesta's double and another from José Luis Costa.

    Chants of "Tame Lions" from the home fans infuriated Athletic captain Juan Garizurieta, who demanded a response from his side, already crowned league champions. Guillermo Gorostiza (2) and José Iraragorri produced the goals that led to Garizurieta storming past local reporters at the end of the match uttering the words, "tame lions?" Atlético were subsequently relegated.

Referee

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    No one ever thinks about the referee until a bad call makes headlines.

    Well, now you'll know who to blame, or give credit to, when chaos takes over.

    Say hello to German ref Wolfgang Stark.

    Stark? That's German for strong. And as far as first names go, Wolfgang is just plain cool.

    Stark, a bank employee from Landshut in Bavaria, will be assisted by his fellow countrymen Jan-Hendrik Salver and Mike Pickel.

    The 42-year-old Stark has been a German Football Association (DFB) referee since 1994 and took charge of 53 matches in the 2. Bundesliga before stepping up to the top flight in 1997. He has been an international referee since 1999, and has officiated in a total of 89 UEFA matches in his refereeing career.

    Sounds like he knows what he's doing.

The Final Word

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    The final word goes to The Guardian's Kevin McCarra, who argues that the Europa League this season has been a throwback-style tournament that has made Thursdays a lot of fun.

    No matter that the final falls on a Wednesday. As McCarra wrote:

    In normal days, well-funded clubs demonstrate that their means will tell, but the inability to do so has been a boon to the Europa League. So far as organisers are concerned, it must have verged on perfection that United and City could add to the status of the secondary competition while being utterly incapable of taking control of it.

    The Europa League has been a joy and we should rush to treasure it while we can. It contains a lesson. The major clubs can afford large squads that will sustain them in the long term, but a side such as Athletic has spells when it can devastate the opposition. It is without a major trophy since 1984, when it did the domestic Double, but hopes must be climbing.

     

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