Atletico Madrid V Athletic Bilbao: Falcao Rampant as Atletico Claim Europa Glory
It was a good final, if not entirely an example for the ages.
A breathtaking first-half brace from the game's most unstoppable player all but ended the contest as a spectacle before the break. And not long before the end, just after the game's most frantic spell, a typically classy Brazilian finish gave Atletico Madrid the 3-0 win they richly deserved on a night of European glory in Bucharest.
But while it wasn't a classic, it was—for a competition that has consistently been so full of tricks and treats, skill and sloppiness, pace and passion and, above all, a refusal to play precisely to form—an appropriate ending.
And it served, once again, to show us how entertaining this second-tier European cup competition can be.
On a night when offensive explosions were anticipated, defensive organization and a 19-year-old keeper underlined the difference between the teams.
On a night when a mad scientist's brainchild hoped to graduate into the big leagues, the new kid on the block eclipsed them all.
And, on a night when European glory was at stake, no one could stop Falcao.
Not that we should have been surprised. A year ago in Dublin, Falcao headed home the only goal as Andre Villas-Boas' Porto beat Braga in an all-Portuguese final.
That night, Villas-Boas supposedly was the legend-in-waiting. He was, after all, making history as the youngest man to coach a team to European glory.
But one year and nearly £35 million later, Falcao re-payed Atletico's high-priced faith by delivering the same trophy in doubly impressive fashion.
Suffice it to say, though, that the widespread use of the "Falcao League" moniker is more than fitting for this competition.
29 - Falcao has now scored 29 goals in 29 Europa League games. Specialist— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 9, 2012
3 - Falcao has now scored with all three of his shots on target in Europa League finals. Update— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 9, 2012
Falcao wasn't a one-man band, of course. The Spanish duo of Mario Suarez and Gabi excelled in the holding midfield, and each member of the back four—Filipe, Diego Godin, Miranda and Juanfran—did what Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting could not.
For long stretches, they made Athletic Bilbao's prolific attackers look pedestrian.
For much of the match, in fact, Bilbao looked more like the side that's languishing in 10th place in Spain's La Liga table—rather than the classy conquerors who tore United apart in March.
But when Iker Muniaín, Oscar de Marcos and Fernando Llorente finally started finding space in a breathless five-minute spell late in the second half, Atletico keeper Thibaut Courtois—a 19-year-old Chelsea loanee—was more than ready to turn them away.
All that was left was for Diego to apply the finishing touches on a deserved 3-0 win, with an expert finish at the far post.
It was a comprehensive beating, and appropriately, Atletico benefited from teamwork all across the pitch. First-year manager Diego Simeone's tactics, and Atletico's organization and execution, were superb.
Simeone's side set out in a fairly standard shape without the ball, with two banks of four featuring two very central, very deep holding players. It was rare to find either Suarez or Gabi out of position, and Athletic continually had to try and play around them as they were unable to go through them – and with their reluctance to go wide, this made things tricky.
When Simeone took over in December, Atletico were four points above the relegation zone. Today, they're two points off a Champions League berth—and the champions of a European cup competition.
Clive Rose/Getty Images
Athletic Bilbao, meanwhile, must be wondering if it was all worth it.
Was sacrificing a respectable league finish a necessary trade-off for a run to the Europa League final? With one match left in the league, Bilbao can finish no higher than sixth, and even that would be improbable.
And is it fair to wonder whether opponents have figured out Marcelo Bielsa's mad-scientist machinations? After Wednesday's loss, Bilbao have now gone four full matches since the Europa League semifinal second leg without scoring a single goal.
Regardless, Atletico Madrid fully deserved their European trophy on a night when they did everything right. And Falcao and Simeone deserve every accolade they're sure to receive in the coming days.
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