May 9, 2012, 5:02 PM EDT
Man of the Match: For the second year in a row, Radamel Falcao’s team wins Europa League, and for the second year in a row, he was the most important player in the final. Last year for Porto, his 44th minute goal was the final’s only score. This year, his first half double carried Atlético to their second Europa title in three years.
Packaged for takeaway:
- Atlético goalkeeper Thibault Courtois could have gotten some Man of the Match consideration were it not for Falcao, though the selection would have been a little pinky out on the tea cup. Still, the Chelsea loanee was commanding in his area, making it clear Athletic were not going to be able to target Fernando Llorente.
- On both Atlético goals, balls played in from the left for a right-shaded Falcao meant left back Jon Aurtenetxe had to deal with the threat. Both times, as Falcao moved the ball onto his left foot, Aurtenetxe slipped, preventing him from putting in a challenge. The first goal was a beautiful curling ball into the upper-left hand corner from 17 yards out, while the second saw Falcao hammer the ball into the left side of goal from seven yards out.
- Autenetxe would be subbed off at halftime, as was holding midfielder Ander Iturraspe, with Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa deciding to waste no time changing a team that failed to meaningfully threaten Atletico. Often you see coaches wait a few minutes into the second half, hoping the lineup that failed in the first half have some kind of intermission epiphany. Bielsa was over it.
- Athletic may have looked more like a team at the end of a long season than a one primed to take advantage of a rare chance at continental glory, but Atlético’s defense deserves the bulk of the credit. Even when Athletic were able to hold long spells of possession, Atlético remained disciplined and patient, waiting for Athletic to make their move into the final third before snuffing it out. The times Athletic became frustrated with trying to break them down, they’d go over the top only to see Courtois easily claim their crosses. Defender João Miranda along with midfielders Gabi and Mario Suárez led the effort.
- That’s not to say Atlétic weren’t supplying any pressure. In the first half, Falcao and either Arda Turan or Diego ran at center halves Javi Martinez and Fernando Amorebieta, forcing the duo to play wide to the full backs, generally preventing Athletic from building through their midfield trio. As a result, midfielders Ander Herrera and Óscar de Marcos were kept relatively quiet.
- Though Atlético played the second half on the counter, they always seemed more likely to get a third than concede. Late in the half, Diego obliged, sealing the title, though there was never really a point where the Rojiblancos looked capable of conceding.
- Even though may had rationalized Athletic’s recent troubles by noting their Copa del Rey and Europa runs, league form ultimately carried over into the final. Atlético came into the game unbeaten in seven (counting their Europa League semifinal lega), while Athletic was winless in three, having dropped all the way to 10th in La Liga.
- It looked like a great night for soccer in Bucharest. Large numbers of supporters for each club made the trip, giving the National Arena a more vibrant feel than previous Europa League finals.
- Athletic still has the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. That’s still 15 days away, giving the squad plenty of time to recover and try to claim their first major trophy in 28 years.
- Atlético has a must win match Sunday at Villarreal. Three points there coupled with a Málaga stumble against Sporting Gíjon and Diego Simeone will have guided his team into Champions League.
- The Champions League berth would complete the amazing turnaround Atlético’s had under Simeone. The Argentine boss was brought in at the winter break with the club in 11th place. In the 30 games since, Atlético’s won 18, losing only five. As much as Falcao will be honored for today’s victory, the most important person to Atlético’s run may have been in the coach’s box.
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