Eight years ago Saturday, Atlético Madrid conquered the Europa League for the second time in three seasons. This, then, is a perfect opportunity for another Masterpiece Theatre review. Let’s head over to Romania’s Arena Națională, where fellow finalists Athletic Club await.
Marcelo Bielsa’s 12th-place Lions were not supposed to be here. Athletic moved onto the group stage thanks to match-fixing allegations and only escaped Lokomotiv Moscow on away goals.
Then came the stunning dismantling of Manchester United, followed by a 6-4 aggregate win over German giants Schalke (Champions League semifinalists the season before). Finally, a dramatic comeback against Sporting Clube de Portugal sent Bielsa and co. to Bucharest as surprise — yet deserved — finalists.
Atlético’s journey began in the third qualifying round against Strømsgodset IF on July 28. Pre-fauxhawk Diego Simeone was named manager in the aftermath of a disastrous winter and immediately solidified a porous defense — the team conceded just 19 league goals after the calendar flipped to January. Los Colchoneros went on to pound Lazio and Besiktas before doubling up Hannover and eliminating domestic rivals Valencia to qualify for the final.
The teams walked out to much fanfare, and it took only six minutes and seven seconds for one side to make a dent on the scoreboard.
Who else but the King of the Europa League — Radamel Falcao — would kick off the scoring by twice cutting inside on Fernando Amorebieta, switching to his left foot and curling a sumptuous strike beyond Gorka Iraizoz? Diego Ribas provided the assist with a well-weighted pass into space, which Falcao caught up to easily.
Bespectacled Bielsa’s Athletic came nowhere near goal in the first 15 minutes. The Basques could not impose their pressing style on the match by having so much possession — around 67 percent at one point. A Fernando Llorente mishit on 19 minutes was the first “opportunity” Athletic created — Diego Godín blanketed the big man otherwise. It was also at this point that security tackled a pitch invader wearing a “Justice for Craiova.”
Iker Muniain capitalized on a 24th minute giveaway to hit a stinging shot at a diving Thibaut Courtois. It was a solid chance, but Atlético’s one-time parent club would not get closer before Falcao happened again.
This goal is my favorite from the night, a moment ensconced in gold. Miranda won the ball, Arda Turan slipped it to Falcao, and the Colombian did the rest. El Tigre’s patience, quick thinking and even quicker motion allowed him to put left back Jon Aurtenetxe on skates, switch to his left foot (again) and lift his shot into the top of the net (again). Atlético had built an insurmountable lead.
Miranda had to scramble away another Muniain attempt to begin the second half while Bielsa tried to change the game with aggressive changes. Simeone saw no such need. Athletic’s central defenders still saw most of the ball as — stop me if you’ve heard this before — Atlético’s two banks of four reduced the opposition to lateral passing around the halfway line.
Llorente’s tough night continued on the hour, when Filipe Luís picked his pocket in front of Courtois. Not even folk hero Gaizka Toquero’s 63rd-minute entrance could change where this match was headed — Atlético’s defense was locked in completely and Courtois had had to make only one save.
Minutes after the post denied Falcao a hat trick, playmaker-turned-scorer Diego put the cherry on the icing on the cake. The Brazilian shrugged off Amorebieta and Toquero before he lashed a low shot beyond Iraizoz to top off as good a display as there has been in the Simeone Era.
Lil Koke — donning the #19 shirt — replaced Diego soon after, while talented but injury-prone defender Álvaro Domínguez came on as the final sub. Longtime captain Antonio López did not see time and would leave for Mallorca over the summer.
ATM XI: Courtois; Juanfran, Godín, Miranda, Filipe Luís; Diego (Koke 90’), Mario, Gabi, Arda Turan (Domínguez 90+3’); Adrián (Toto Salvio 88’), Falcao.
Goals: Falcao 7’ 34’, Diego 85’
ATH XI: Iraizoz; Iraola, Javi Martínez, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe (Ibai Gómez 46’); Herrera (Toquero 63’), Iturraspe (Pérez 46’), de Marcos; Susaeta, Muniain, Llorente.