Radamel Falcao is no stranger to the Europa League final, having already scored in it and won the final in the previous season with Porto. One year later, and Falcao was up to the same tricks, scoring a fantastic double before Diego closed out the game much much later, setting up an impressive 3-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, winning the title for the second time in three years.
It was Atletico’s game from the first moment. Bilbao might have won more praise during the season, especially after their performances against Manchester United. Marcelo Bielsa has been heralded by everyone possible, targeted by speculations as the next manager for some big club.
But it was his former player who won the tactical battle. Diego Simeone turned things around this season for Atletico, and his signature was all over the way the played and pressed Bilbao into submission. From the first moment the Basque team just couldn’t move the ball the way they’re used to, with Atletico cutting off all passing lanes with their high and aggressive pressure.
Falcao struck first, and wonderfully for that matter. His curving shot after less than six minutes was the best of the match, but it didn’t slow Atletico down. They were still hungry, and Falcao more than everyone. He showed wonderful control and awareness in the box with a wonderful spin and finish to put Atletico 2-0 before half time. Something simply didn’t work for Bilbao, who just couldn’t shake off the pressure or adjust to the grandeur of the event.
Maybe it’s youth, or maybe it was the difference in the quality of the teams that separated them eventually. More experienced players, who felt more comfortable with the big occasion. Bilbao did play a better second half because Atletico eased off, but still, real chances were seldom seen. A brilliant game from Gabi and Mario Suarez in the middle eliminated the Bilbao midfield whenever they increased the pressure.
It wasn’t a flashy performance, but a hard working one. That’s Falcao, and that’s Turan. The flash is about Diego and Adrian, but they played their part as well; especially Diego, scoring in the 85th minute to put the game finally to rest. Bilbao did look better in the second half, especially when Ibai was touching the ball. But this team relies heavily on Llorente and Muniain, and they both found it hard to do anything special through the 90 minutes.
Spain, after all, do have a European champion this season. Maybe not the title most people thought would be in Spanish hands come May, with Barcelona and Real Madrid failing to reach the Champions League final, but it’s great to see other teams share the glory that the two usually keep all for themselves.
The importance for both clubs is the continuity. With the managers and with their star players. Some very good foundations have been laid down this season by both Bielsa and Simeone. If these clubs, and others as well, want to make life harder for the big two in their La Liga conquests, it’s not only about money and purchasing star players. It’s keeping the talent and those grooming it. At this point in the La Liga evolution, a Europa League title is the biggest ambition most Spanish clubs can think of.