Just as I was about to start watching last night’s final in Bucharest, I had a load of stats on my desk which OPTA always send me and which I always look through carefully when preparing to write about the matches for this forum. There are those who say that stats are just that, stats, and they can’t tell you much. But they can at least throw up some curious coincidences or some interesting things. It was the sixth all Spanish final of a European tournament, the second if we just include the UEFA Cup / Europa League, and the sixth European final for the eventual winner, Atletico Madrid, not including the Intertoto Cup, which the Madrid side had won as they had against Fulham (2-1 after extra time) in 2010. We also know that Atletico were to be the third of the eight clubs who had been in two UEFA Cup / Europa League Finals in a 3 year period to win both of them, as had Real Madrid and Sevilla. Or on the other side of the coin, Athletic would lose their second big European final as they had against Juventus in 1976-7. Falcao confirmed his title as top scorer and Atletico continued their run of 11 straight wins in the competition. They were a few of the aspects to ponder before the game hidden behind the eventual 3-0 scoreline. We could have expected a lot after the unforgettable nights that the Bilbao side had given us, not least the encounter at Old Trafford against the mighty Manchester United. And that wasn’t the only one…but let’s get on with our own particular analysis of last night’s match.
Atletico 3 - Athletic 0
The match began, as expected given the teams and the background, with a high intensity by both teams. With lost possession and immediate regains without giving each other time to breathe. A frenetic start. Some direct play by Athletic looking for Fernando Llorente and regains and counter attack by Atletico. Pressing after lost possession and if they didn’t regain, drop off quickly giving nothing away to the opposition.
The match changed quickly. Straightaway, after 6 minutes, we saw a fantastic goal by Radamel Falcao Garcia Zarate, who with his left foot curled the ball inside the far post of Iraizoz’s goal as he tried to keep out the shot. It was pretty much unstoppable no matter what Athletic felt. If Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone wanted to play on the counter attack at the beginning of the game, it was clear they could do it after this early goal. And so it went on: drop off, intensity in pressing and counter quickly on regain.
As for Marcelo Bielsa’s team, they regained their pride after the goal and for a while pressed with intensity, creating a few dangerous moves (in particular a missed shot by Fernando Llorente with the outside of his foot). This was all in the first quarter of the match.
The Basque team moved the ball quickly but patiently for sure. But equally their opponent defended well, with the lines close together as they do and counter attacking as soon as they could. On 21 minutes, Ander Herrera was shown a yellow card for a dangerous foul on Diego in one of the counter attacks initiated by Falcao.
But the final had begun with high tempo and continued in the same way. All the players had no space and this produced tackles and fouls. After one of these, on 25 minutes, Falcao got a yellow card. He was surprised to get one at that point in the proceedings.
For Athletic, Muniain was dropping deep to receive and from there tried to get in to the opposition box by dribbling or by using quick wall passes to some effect, but their play was a bit too quick they saw most of their attempts unfortunately come to nothing on the edge of the box because of the covering between the centre backs and midfield which Simeone had fielded.
On top of this, as Athletic were finding it difficult, in the 33rd minute the second Atletico goal came through the same player as the first. In one of their collective pressing moves, they regained the ball and, inside the box up against a few opponents, Falcao managed to score the second before Gorka could get there. With just half an hour gone, things were had become very difficult for Bilbao’s Lions. Their only hope was to score quickly to close the gap and change the momentum. But they couldn’t do it.
So the first half ended, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side trying to get in the game, but nearly always through the middle where the red and white stripes had players and good cover, with their opponents pressing and trying to win the ball to counter attack and look for their goalscorer on the night, Falcao, to finish it off. And they nearly managed it towards the end of the half with a shot over the bar.
After the break and as you would expect, Athletic started the second half trying to get back in the match, pressing to regain the ball quickly and counter attack, with Muniain getting forward dangerously in the early stages. But his cross was put out for a corner by the watchful Miranda.
Bielsa had used his bench and had made two substitutions at half time. Bilbao continued to press, looking dangerous especially from set plays, putting balls in the box and it was becoming more and more clear that Atletico was using their option we have already mentioned: counter attacking to use the space behind the opposition defence.
When after 62 minutes Toquero came on for Ander Herrera, the third sub, you felt that things were getting desperate for Bielsa to change the game. From then on, tactically, they played with two strikers and wingers, with Muniain in a free role behind them. But this did not work either.
Atletico were trying to keep the ball mainly through Diego and run down the clock which was ticking in their favour. The team that had to hurry was clearly Athletic.
When the Basque attacks were organised, Atletico always had time to drop off and get men in the box, but if there were quicker crosses, as we saw in the 70th minute, they could find Fernando Llorente unmarked to finish like he can. The rebound behind the defence Ibai put over but at least there was some threat. Next, again for Bielsa’s team, there was a long, high ball by Javi Martinez, looking for the head of Llorente but it was difficult to surprise the Atletico defence with that type of ball.
Meanwhile the Atletico fans were getting more and more animated as they saw the trophy getting closer to their grasp, as the Athletic pressure was continuing and their own attacks getting less effective. Susaeta went inside more to try to create space for Iraola in the wide area, Ibai was more open but he was closed down immediately and could not cross.
Adrian produced a good counter attack running with the ball and won a central free kick. This was in the 74th minute and it looked all over. Athletic, playing in green, kept on looking for Muniain between the lines to pass the ball forward but his passes to Llorente or Toquero were surrounded by players. So the defensive intensity of the centre backs, together with the support given by Mario Gomez and Gaby was effective.
Courtois, who for me had a good game, was another reason why Bilbao couldn’t score, as he was brave and decisive for the high balls and supported his defence giving them confidence.
To show the control Atletico had, Luis Filipe, Turan and Diego combined in a move to get in to the opposition box, Susaeta had a chance in a central move with Llorente and Muniain. Next we saw Falcao hitting the post after another Mario Suarez move and finally a quick attack by Diego which finished the game off with the last goal. It was the 84th minute and the nth counter attack by Atletico taking advantage of the fact that their opponent was chasing the game looking for a goal and Diego scored the third and final goal.
After that the celebrations began in the crowd, the ‘colchonera’, who had also been celebrating two years before. Disappointment and tears from the followers who had come to support Bielsa’s team and there only remained a shot against the post by Ibai which deserved a goal but this was the final punishment for them amidst the celebrating fans.
Atletico won through better finishing in attack, they knew how to control the game and did very well. Congratulations to all the red and whites with Simeone and the players leading the way. But Athletic should not forget that they have been Europe’s sensation for most of the season and they have had a great time, football will always give you another chance as it is not finished for them yet as they are in the Copa del Rey Final which will coincidentally take place at the stadium of last night’s opponents, the Vicente Calderon. If they allow me, obviously more for their contribution this season in Europe than for last night, congratulations as well to Marcelo Bielsa, his players and their fans.