The UEFA Europa League final is upon us. It’s an all-Spanish match later today, with Atlético Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao facing off at the National Arena in Bucharest. It’s a late kickoff in Romania: 9:45pm EEST, which corresponds to the usual 2:45pmET/11:45amPT for those of in the US.
(Athletic Bilbao’s nickname is Los Leones, while Atlético is known as Los Colchoneros–The Mattress Makers. Hence the headline.)
This term Athletic won their home Liga fixture 3-0 in October with the help of two Fernando Llorente goals [a match report here], but a Falcao double consigned them to a 2-1 loss at the Vicente Calderón in March [a match report here].
We previously wrote about Athletic Bilbao initially in November (here), ahead of their home match against Barcelona. We focused there on the interesting relationship between Athletic Bilbao’s manager Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola. (The two who will meet again in a couple weeks, when Barcelona and Athletic meet in this season’s Copa del Rey fnal. It will be Guardiola’s last match managing Barcelona. Coincidentally that match will take place at the Vicente Calderon, Atlético’s home ground.)
Bielsa and Atlético’s manager Diego Simeone also know each other very well:
Bielsa was Simeone’s coach with Argentina between 1998 and 2002. Both were involved in Argentina’s 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign, where they failed to progress beyond the group stage. Simeone made the last of his 106 international appearances under Bielsa in Sapporo, in a 1-0 defeat by England on 7 June.
Simeone was also celebrated player for Atlético, spending two stints playing in Madrid (1993-1997 and 2003-2005), and his return to the club mid-season as manager has been a very successful one, at least in terms of results. In addition to guiding the club to this European final, Atlético is still in contention for a Champions League spot. See here for excerpts from a Sid Lowe column about the return of El Cholo to Atlético.
Regarding the squads, here are some players to watch:
Athletic Bilbao: Fernando Llorente up front, at “la punta” of the attack, a player who has won 19 caps playing for Spain (including an appearance in South Africa for the World Cup-winning side); speedy and skilled 18-year-old Iker Muniain, who plays in an attacking midfield role, often out wide; behind them 23-year old Javi Martínez, formerly a central midfielder who Bielsa has moved back into central defense; and right back Andoni Iraola.
Atlético Madrid: Colombian striker Falcao is the primary goal-scoring threat, although young Spanish winger Adrián López has also been scoring in Europa matches; behind them look for Brazilian midfield playmaker Diego.
It’s worth listening to this week’s Guardian podcast. After the discussion of Newcastle-City (and Arsenal’s woes), and Sid Lowe discussing Granada-Real Madrid, he previews today’s match (and afterwards James Richardson and Paolo Bandini discuss the Milan derby and Juve’s scudetto).
More interesting excerpts from UEFA.com’s backgrounder:
• Atlético have had marginally the better of the sides’ 150 domestic league meetings, with 64 wins to Athletic’s 59.
• The clubs’ first Liga encounter came in the inaugural Spanish championship campaign in 1929. By then they had already contested one Copa del Rey final, Athletic winning 4-1 in 1921. Athletic prevailed 2-1 when they next met in the showpiece in 1956, but it was Atlético’s turn in their most recent showdown in 1985. Hugo Sánchez struck twice for Luis Aragonés’s side before Julio Salinas pulled a goal back for Javier Clemente’s Athletic in a final played at the Santiago Bernabéu.
UEFA also has a separate listicle–Athletic [Bilbao] v Atlético [Madrid]: classic meetings–with more on those three CdR finals, plus a 1930 La Liga meeting and 1992 CdR quarterfinal first leg match.
Continuing with the backgrounder:
• Athletic were victorious in their only previous tie against a fellow Spanish club in Europe, beating FC Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate in the 1976/77 UEFA Cup quarter-finals. They face the Catalan side again in this season’s Spanish Cup final on 25 May, at Atlético’s Estadio Vicente Calderón.
• Athletic may have less European final experience but they share with Barcelona the record for second-most Copa del Rey final appearances – 35 ahead of the clubs’ showdown in this season’s final (Real Madrid have the most with 37, including 18 wins). The Basque club have won 23 editions of the Copa del Rey to Atlético’s nine.
• Although Athletic lead 2-1 in Copa del Rey final meetings, there has been little between the sides in recent Liga encounters. Since the 1999/2000 season Atlético have posted ten victories to Athletic’s nine from 22 matches.