ATM XI: Oblak, Vrsaljko (Juanfran 45’), Godín, Giménez, Lucas, Gabi, Saúl, Koke, Correa (Thomas 88’), Costa, Griezmann (Torres 90’)
L’OM XI: Mandanda, Sarr, Rami, Gustavo, Amavi, Sanson, Anguissa, Thauvin, Payet (Lopez 32’), Ocampos (N’Jie 55’), Germain (Mitroglou 74’)
After a very long, arduous season, Atlético Madrid found themselves in the Europa League final. Opponents Marseille were one of Europe’s hottest teams this year and were playing in their home nation, at their most hated rival’s home ground. The Marseille fans clearly outnumbered the Atlético fans — despite the match being in theory at a neutral venue — but as we know, UEFA could not organize a child’s tea party. Not only was the ticket allocation for Atleti fans shameful, but our old friend Bjorn Kuipers was selected to be the match official, so Atleti had a lot of work to do from the start.
The match started in rather hectic fashion, with both teams scrapping for possession early on. It was Atlético, however, that was under the most pressure early, when Valère Germain had a great chance that he skied well over the bar. Adil Rami also put a shot wide from a set-piece, while Atlético had yet to threaten to that point. Los rojiblancos’ first shot in anger was by Koke, who tried to Paolo Di Canio it in from outside the area. Probably the best word for the opening 20 minutes or so would be “nervy,” as Diego Simeone’s/Mono Burgos’ men looked quite sloppy.
However, the game would change on 21 minutes, when Gabi intercepted a pass at the back and volleyed the ball into Antoine Griezmann’s path. The Frenchman took his time and slotted home with the left foot. It was excellent awareness from the captain to put the ball into a dangerous area, even if he did not entirely intend to find Griezmann. Marseille were left to rue their missed chances as Atleti followed their game plan to perfection. Ángel Correa nearly doubled the score just minutes later with a really nice volley that Steven Mandanda was able to grab.
After the goal, Atlético looked rejuvenated and got the added bonus of Marseille captain Dimitri Payet going off with a leg injury after just 32 minutes. It was a gut-wrenching moment, but Payet had been conducting the Marseille attack throughout the first half, and his loss reduced the danger Marseille could offer from set plays. Atleti soon started to connect more often with their passes and Diego Costa was able to become more involved in the game. At the half, the statistics backed up the eye-test, with both sides having just one shot on target, but Marseille having more shots in general. Atleti were just more ruthless and better in defense, constantly swarming the talented Marseille attackers.
At the half, Vrsaljko was substituted for Juanfran, likely as a result of the yellow card he was on. The other thing that changed was it began to rain torrentially during the break, which only made assistant manager Mono Burgos look more frightening, if that’s even possible.
Atlético got off to the best possible start to the second half, with Griezmann doubling his tally for the day thanks to a sensual chip over Mandanda. It was an excellent goal, and Griezmann was well on his way to the Falcao special. Moments later he could have had it, too, with a strike from outside the area. Diego Godín also nearly scored from the resulting corner with a free header that just went over the bar. Atleti were more than content to stifle all OM chances — the Frenchmen struggled to just retain the ball in the second half. Their best moment came nine minutes from time, when substitute Kostas Mitroglou hit the post after a wicked cross. That moment was Atleti’s only defensive lapse in the second period.
On more than one occasion, los colchoneros were glad to recycle possession rather than put a cross into the box or try to score a third, which should come as no surprise to anyone well-versed in watching Atlético. In the 90th minute, though, that third goal did come — captain Gabi got on the scoresheet after a brilliant Thoams-led counter. Koke took a touch and slid the ball to his right for an unmarked Gabi to smack into the far corner. It was a beautiful moment for the captain, who has sacrificed everything for this club and more than deserved this moment. After that, Fernando Torres entered the match and the celebrations began in earnest.
After a difficult run to the final, Atlético were triumphant for the third time in the UEFA Europa League. It was a perfect performance in the showpiece — Germain’s chance in the first half and Mitroglou’s header were the only chances Marseille got. Griezmann will get all the praise, but the whole team performed well in the biggest match of the season. Domestically, there may be some regrets about chances missed, and there certainly will be in the Champions League, but Atleti end the season with a trophy nonetheless.