Athletic Bilbao vs. Atletico Madrid: The Key Matchups in the Europa League Final
This year's Europa League Final—formerly the UEFA Cup—will be the sixth in 12 years contested by at least one Spanish club.
Of the previous six, Spanish sides have won all but one time. That one time was Liverpool's triumph over Alaves in 2000-01.
This year's finalist Atletico Madrid won the competition just two seasons ago on the strength of strikers Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero. This year, the club is led by last season's Europa League Final match winner, Radamel Falcao.
Atletico will face Athletic Bilbao who is playing in their first European final since 1976-77. Bilbao is a club of tradition, only selecting players from the Basque region, and the club has waited along time to return to this level.
Both clubs have worked hard to get to this point, but there's still another 90-minutes before a Europa League champion is crowned in Bucharest, Romania. Now with 204 Europa League matches played in 2011-12, let's look at the key match ups for the final.
Marcelo Bielsa was wanted by Inter Milan prior to the start of the season. Perhaps their season would have been different with the "El Loco" on the touch line.
Despite finishing sixth last term, the club has been turned around by Bielsa's tactical nuances. They have gone from a long ball team to a team that creates chances.
Bilbao's fitness is some of the best in Europe, and Atletico will hope to contain the Basque club unlike their meeting back in October.
On that occasion, Bielsa's Bilbao ran out 3-0 winners over the Mattress Makers. Atletico did extract some revenge a few weeks back winning 2-1, but Bilbao has been anything but consistent this season. The same could be said for Atletico, however.
Since the club appointed former player Diego Simeone as manager last winter, the club has seen their fortunes change. It helps that striker Falcao and company have been in decent form.
Both managers have been able to get the best out of their players, but not on a regular basis outside the Europa League. However, Bilbao has been fantastic in knockout tournaments this term. Bielsa could pull off a remarkable double in his first season with Bilbao as the club will play Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Final.
Fernando Llorente's 17 goals and Radamel Falcao's 23 would usually be good enough for the top of the league's leader board. Unfortunately, both strikers play in a league with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Their goal-scoring exploits have had the shine taken off to some extent.
Regardless, both strikers are the focal points of each club. Llorente's ability to play as a target man allows Bilbao to hold the ball up, bringing the rest of the squad into the attack. His brilliance this season has attracted Barcelona into possibly making a bid for the striker in the summer.
Falcao on the other hand, is more of an out and out striker. He'll hold the ball up and bring the rest of the team into the attack, but he's all about creating his own scoring opportunities. While Llorente is excellent being played into space, Falcao can create with the ball played at his feet.
On paper, Atletico has the better attack, but Bilbao will run up and down the pitch all night. After a long season, it could be the deciding factor.
Bilbao's midfield is the harder working of the two midfields. They work incredibly hard to win the ball and to get up and down the pitch.
At the center of this is midfield engine Javi Martinez, who has already appeared in 51 matches this season. The Spaniard has a highly capable midfield around him, however, it will be Martinez's job to break up the Atletico attack.
On the other side of the ball, Atletico's most exciting midfield man is Turkish international Arda Turan. The winger has six assist to go along with three goals. Nothing exceptional, but it is his job to work the wide areas and help create space for Falcao.
Not only did both teams split their La Liga matches during the course of the season, but both clubs have similarly defensive records.
Atletico's defense has only allowed 44 goals this term, while Bilbao has given up 46. Their attacks both sit at 49 goals scored going into this weekend as well.
At the heart of Atletico's defense is the veteran and club captain Antonio Lopez. The defender played all 120 minutes of Atletico's Europa League Final two seasons ago. On that night, he helped to snuff out Fulham's attack and he'll be required to do something similar next week.
Bilbao's Fernando Amorebieta will anchor the Basque club's defense. The Venezuelan has been constant for the club all season playing 27 times in La Liga to go with another 13 appearances in the Europa League. It'll be his job to control Falcao in the final third.
Looking at the stats, Atletico's Thibaut Courtois—on loan from Chelsea—seems to have the better defense in front of him. He has made 79 saves this season in 34 matches, conceding 39 goals.
Meanwhile, Bilbao's Gorka Iraizoz has saved 139 shots and conceded 46 times in 35 matches. The club's defense has been porous in front of their goalkeeper this season. The club's running up and down style doesn't help, and at times, he has faced a lot of pressure. With 139 saves, he has stood up to that pressure as well, but he has faced a lot of shots.
Courtois' reputation has grown as he has put in excellent performances for the club this season. The combination of his defense and ability to bail Atletico out of trouble gives him the edge over Iraizoz.