Europa League Final Head-to-Head: Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao

Tony MabertContributor IMay 8, 2012

Europa League Final Head-to-Head: Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao

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    It may not quite be the all-Spanish European final everyone was expecting, but Wednesday's Europa League final between Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao promises to be a fine showpiece to the competition.

    The latter stages of UEFA's secondary competition have once again proven that there is plenty of quality below the cabal of Champions League clubs, as Athletic's evisceration of Manchester United proved earlier in the season.

    Atletico, too, have proven themselves worthy of a place in the Bucharest final, having beaten the likes of Valencia and Lazio en route to their second European showpiece in three years.

    Here is a head-to-head analysis of the two teams and some key matchups ahead of what promises to be a great final that shows there is more to La Liga than El Clasico and more to European football than the Champions League.

Head-to-Head

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    The clash at the Stadionul National Arena pits the 2010 winners against the stars of this season's competition.

    Atletico have scored 40 goals on the road to the Romanian capital, 12 more than Athletic. 

    However, the Madrid club have played three more games in the tournament, having entered in the qualifying round before their Basque counterparts, who only played one leg of their playoff against Trabzonspor before the Turkish side were promoted to the Champions League following the expulsion of Fenerbahce.

    What is intriguing about these two meeting in the final is that, in their 10 meetings in La Liga over the past five seasons, both teams have won exactly half of their encounters—neither side has done a league double over the other.

    Despite them being so evenly matched, you have to go back to December 2005 to find the last time these two shared the points, while there has not been a goalless draw in any of their last 23 meetings.

    This season's results have been fair reflections of both these sides and their recent rivalry. Fernando Llorente scored twice as Athletic beat Atletico 3-0 at the San Mames back in October, only for Radamel Falcao to match that feat as his team won the reverse fixture 2-1 in March.

    It is not often that a major final features two sides so well matched, so this game should be a rare treat.

Radamel Falcao vs. Fernando Amorebieta

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    In the short history of the Europa League, surely the star player in the competition is Falcao.

    Last season, the Colombian scored a phenomenal 17 goals in Europe as Porto marched their way to the trophy as part of their historic domestic and European treble.

    Since making his move to Spain with Atletico last summer as a replacement for both Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, Falcao has not relented.

    He is this season's top scorer with 10 goals, joint with Schalke's Klass-Jan Huntelaar, and he's also netted a monster 23 goals in 33 league appearances in his first season in Spain.

    In all fairness, it is worth pointing out that Falcao's teammate Adrian Lopez is next on the top-scorer list with eight goals.

    Falcao, like the bird with which he shares his name, is lethal in the air, and it will take all of Bilbao defender Amorebieta's aerial might and determination to stop him from scoring in a second straight Europa League final.

Diego vs. Javi Martinez

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    Just as Atletico striker Radamel Falcao is the competition's highest scorer this season, so is Diego the player with the most assists.

    The Brazilian has set up six European goals for his teammates as well as scoring two himself on his first campaign with the Spanish club.

    After a poor couple of seasons at Juventus and Wolfsburg, Diego finally looks to be getting back to his creative best which made him such a highly rated player during his time at Werder Bremen.

    The playmaker is likely to come up against Javi Martinez, one of many Bilbao players who have won so many plaudits for their European exploits this season.

    Martinez, who was part of Spain's World Cup-winning squad in 2010, has impressed both in central midfield and at the heart of defence for Athletic, and he will be key to limiting Diego's influence in either of those positions.

Juanfran vs. Iker Muniain

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    Another player from the Basque side to have come to wider international attention this season is Muniain. 

    The 19-year-old attacker has jinxed and dribbled his way to the top of many observers' lists of the stars of tomorrow, as well as into the Spanish national team.

    Vicente del Bosque gave Muniain his first cap in February and could well take him to this summer's European Championships, too.

    Standing in Muniain's way will be Juanfran, the player who has spent most of his career as a winger but has played at full-back at Atletico for much of the season. As a player raised in the art of wing play himself, Atletico will hope that Juanfran will be able to anticipate some of the moves the lavishly-skilled Muniain will try to make against him.

    This duel may prove to be one of the most intriguing of the final.

Diego Godin vs. Fernando Llorente

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    After being touted as a transfer target for both Real Madrid and Barcelona in January 2011, Llorente's blistering form tailed off toward the end of last season.

    However, this term he has once again shown why he is likely to feature prominently for Spain this summer.

    As well as scoring 17 goals in La Liga, the tall striker has also claimed seven in Europe, including strikes home and away against Manchester United and at crucial points in the subsequent ties against Schalke and Sporting Lisbon.

    In Bucharest, Llorente will be up against Godin, the rugged Uruguayan defender who was such a key part of his country's run to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup.

    He would surely have played a part in his nation's Copa America triumph last summer, too, had he missed the vast majority of the tournament through injury.

Diego Simeone vs. Marcelo Bielsa

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    It may be an all-Spanish affair as far as the two clubs are concerned, but in the dugouts it will be one Argentinian versus another.

    Marcelo Bielsa has added another chapter to his unconventional career by leading Athletic Bilbao to the final with such attacking verve.

    The man affectionately nicknamed "Loco" is often cited as a major influence on outgoing Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, but another student of his could end his hopes of landing Athletic their first trophy.

    Atletico manager Diego Simeone played the final 30 of his 106 senior appearances for Argentina under Bielsa around the turn of the century and has made a big splash of his own in La Liga this season.

    The former Atletico midfield general returned to the Vicente Calderon as manager, replacing the sacked Gregorio Manzano just before Christmas, with the club 10th in the table and just four points off relegation.

    Since then, he has led the Rojiblancos to a European final and up the table to fifth. They could yet finish fourth on the final day if they beat Villarreal and big-spending Malaga draw with Sporting Gijon.

    Whichever side claims the trophy on Wednesday, the victorious manager will fully deserve their fair share of the plaudits.