Two Spanish teams. Two sets of fans clad in red and white. Two Argentinean managers, responsible for revolutionising their respective teams.
This was the Europa League final, the culmination of an exciting competition that in many people’s opinion has eclipsed the Champions League in terms of surprise and entertainment.
Atletico Madrid took on Athletic Bilbao, not just in an all-Spanish affair, not just as a Basque outfit took on a side from the capital they rebel against.
This match also saw a clash between two managers from the same country with such differing ideals in how to play the beautiful game.
This was two men with the same idea of creating successful football, but with polar opposite ways of achieving that goal. Like the Gallagher brothers from Oasis; the same goal of making successful music, but couldn’t agree on the way to go about it.
This was Diego Simeone’s High Flying Birds taking on the Beady Eye of Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa is a man who goes into extraordinary detail with his preparation for matches, watching endless videos on the opposition and his own team, looking out for any flaws or weaknesses that can either be exploited or addressed, depending on who he’s watching.
He has revolutionised Athletic Bilbao, often lazily referred to as the ‘English style’ team of La Liga.
No longer are they the team often utilising the route one option, aiming more to bully their opponents into submission than pass them to death.
But under Bielsa, they have maintained that dogged intensity with quick-fire attacks, utilising the flanks to deadly effect and enjoying a creative trio in the centre of the park that few other teams could claim any superiority over.
Simeone on the other hand has revolutionised his Atletico side in the opposite way. Always a team that threatened to entertain, Simeone has brought discipline, organisation and, little by little (see what I did there?), consistency to Los Rojiblancos.
Suddenly this Atletico team that been regularly described as work-shy and uncommitted has found their fighting spirit, following in the mould of their manager, a tenacious midfielder who gave no quarter, or asked for any in return.
The likes of Diego Godin have been transformed under Simeone, as a new determination has enveloped the club, to achieve what should be expected of them, as opposed to wilting under the pressure.
No longer are they the infuriatingly inconsistent Atletico Madrid of old, as they have surged up the league table, combining attractive attacking football with a defensive resilience rarely seen in the red and white half of Madrid.
Both sides have displayed these new found tendencies en route to the Europa League final, with Atletico battling their way through the latter stages, having been on the brink of elimination in the group stages under the stewardship of Gregorio Manzano.
Athletic have wowed Europe this season, attracting a legion of new fans with their high-pressure style of football, that decimated the likes of Manchester United who were foolishly expected to breeze to a Europa League trophy following a disappointing Champions League campaign.
So this emerged as a match incredibly hard to call, with Atletico the understandable favourites due to the total value of assembling their squad, whilst Athletic have made a habit of upsetting the odds from the very beginning, with wealthy Paris St. Germain dumped out in the group stages.
In the end it was the apprentice that outsmarted the master, as Simeone led his side to victory over his former international coach.
Athletic’s tendency to be slow starters in games was exploited to the fullest, as Atletico started strongly and got their noses in front early on.
Falcao is the man who will get the headlines as his dazzling two goals put Atletico in a commanding position by the time the referee gave the players a 15 minute break.
His movement was impeccable for the first, a clever run splitting the Athletic defence, allowing him a one-on-one with the weak link in Athletic’s defence, Fernando Amorebieta.
Most players would have rushed things, taken a shot from a poor angle, or laid the ball off to one of the midfielders running forward to help the Colombian. Instead, he showed patience, cutting back inside, and curling an unstoppable shot into the far corner, giving Gorka Iraizoz no chance.
Athletic were shell-shocked, but their attempts to reply were met with an organised red and white wall.
The midfield trio of Markel Susaeta, Oscar De Marcos and Ander Iturraspe were rendered impotent by the surprisingly hard-working Diego, Gabi and the undoubted man of the match, Mario Suarez.
You would never have guessed Athletic were the team in the changed green strip, as Atletico matched them for intensity.
And they were rewarded once again for their endeavour, as Amorebieta dallied on the ball and was robbed, allowing Arda Turan to get to the by-line and cut the ball back.
There was still work to be done for Falcao, instantly reaching out to control a ball that was behind him, performing an audacious drag-back to leave Jon Aurtenetxe on his backside and blasting the ball into the net to give Atletico a comfortable lead at the break and put him on a personal course to secure successive Europa League trophies.
Athletic tried to mount a comeback in the second half, a double substitution bringing the exciting Ibai Gomez into the fray.
Iker Muniain was Athletic’s most dangerous looking player, with a series of incisive runs and clever touches, but with Fernando Llorente shackled by the excellent Diego Godin, little came of these attacks, barring a few shots flying over the bar.
Thibaut Courtois was called into action on one occasion, making a fine save down low that could have made the final ten minutes uncomfortable for Atletico.
But instead Atletico made use of the space afforded to them in the other half, with Diego scoring a fine individual goal, again leaving Amorebieta for dead before firing into the far corner.
So it was Atletico’s second Europa League triumph in three years, despite the entire first 11 having changed in that timeframe.
The appeal of Athletic was apparent at the final whistle, each and every player leaving the field in tears, such is the meaning of this club to the players, providing much needed relief to the money-obsessed world that fans often find their players inhabiting.
Bielsa was left consoling his players, having to tell them to stop crying their heart out, and trying to refocus them on the final league fixture and Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona.
Simeone on the other hand, left in a champagne supernova, as he landed a major trophy just five months into his regime at Vicente Calderon.
The future looks rosy for both sides though, and with both sides qualified for next season’s competition, expect more fireworks again.
No more can the Europa League be regarded as a Mickey Mouse tournament. It has become the most exciting competition in European club football.
Tags: Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Diego, Diego Simeone, Europa League, Falcao, La Liga, Marcelo Bielsa