BUCHAREST: The Champions League Final was the one supposed to be the all-Spanish affair.
However Real Madrid and Barcelona could not make it so it was the Europa League Final in Bucharest which owned that pride as Atletico de Madrid ruthlessly executed their original parent club, Athletic of Bilbao, by 3-0 in front of a capacity 52,347 in the National Arena in Bucharest.
This was the ninth European meeting of clubs from the same country in a final. Last season Porto beat Braga in all-Portuguese showdown when Radamel Falcao scored the winning goal.
Now with Atletico, his ambition to see personal history repeat itself was manifest after little more than half an hour when he shot Madrid into a decisive 2-0 lead; Brazilian playmaker Diego added a delicate late cameo third.
The Europa League is the fourth version of a tournament launched in the mid-1950s as the Industrial Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and which evolved via the simpler Fairs Cup into the UEFA Cup. But Europe’s No2 club event still suffers from a perception that it is a competitive dumping ground for also-rans – an image not assisted by the introduction halfway through of eight clubs relegated out of the Champions League.
Atletico had been here before in recent times, beating Fulham in extra time two years ago in Hamburg; Bilbao had to look back to 1977 when they lost narrowly over two legs to Juventus.
Last year there was no doubting that Porto, then led by Falcao, were favourites. Under Andre Villas-Boas they had won the curtain-raising Portuguese Supercup and went on to land the league title undefeated. This time it appeared possible the outcome might tip either way in the meeting of the ‘Lions’ of Bilbao and the Colchoneros (mattress-makers) of Madrid.
Appearances can be deceptive.
Madrid kicked off and maintained their opening momentum, aided by a rain-slicked pitch which induced insecurity in Bilbao’s defending. Fatally. When Fernando Amorebieta lost his footing momentarily, Falcao capitalised. The Colombian took one step to his left and curled a perfectly-judged arrow inside the far post for the opening goal.
Bilbao reacted positively. Fernando Llorente should have done much better with a ‘free’ header and then a near-post volley. Both efforts dropped wide, disappointingly so for a player with the added incentive of leading Spain’s attack at Euro 2012.
Bilbao’s concentration was then interrupted while security staff chased down a couple of pitch invaders (Will UEFA, as match organiser, fine itself?). They lost possession carelessly and Falcao charged forward on the break. Ander Herrera halted play with a foul at the cost of a yellow card and Bilbao ran away downfield only to see Iker Muniain low drive draw a full-length diving stop out of Thibaut Courtois, the Chelsea loanee in Madrid’s goal.
Llorente’s careless finishing was punished in the 35th minute. Bilbao were caught in possesion deep in their own half, Arda Turan skipped around the right flank of defence and this time Jon Aurtenetxe was the defender turned inside out before Falcao battered home his second goal from close range.
Bilbao had looked ragged and mis-shapen, very unlike a Marcelo Bielsa team. Hardly surprisingly, he made two halftime changes to try to rescue form and final. Inigo Perez replaced the baffled Ander Iturraspe in the heart of midfield and Ibai Gomez appeared on the left wing with De Marcos dropping back in place of the all-at-sea Artenexte.
There was little immediate difference. Bilbao upped the tempo but Madrid continued to look the more cohesive and focused. Just after the hour Bielsa played his last card and sent on Gaizka Toquero up front for Herrera.
That had some effect. Ibai Gomez and De Marcos shot high over the bar both when reasonably placed; Susaeta saw a powerful, first-time volley deflected wide for a corner when Courtois, for once, was unsighted; then Llorente, Toquero and Susaeta all had shots blocked in rapid-fire succession.
But that was the end of it. Atletico underlined their all-round superiority by holding firm in defence and breaking decisively. Official man of the match Falcao hit a post with a craftily-judged shot before Diego ran clear from midfield five minutes from time, hypnotised three defenders then ghosted between them to score Atletico’s third.
The frenzy, briefly, may have been coming from Bilbao but the force was very much with Madrid.
Atletico de Madrid: Courtois – Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Filipe Luis – Mario Suarez, Gabi – Diego (Koke 89), Adrian Lopez (Salvio 88), Arda Turan (Dominguez 90) – Falcao. Coach: Simeone.
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz – Andoni Iraola, Javi Martinez, Amorebieta, Aurtenexte (Ibai Gomez 46) – Ander Herrera (Toquero 62), Iturraspe (Inigo Perez 46), De Marcos – Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain. Coach: Bielsa.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
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