El Centrocampista

Athletic Club – Atlético de Madrid: UEFA Europa League Final 2012 Preview

After over 10 months of grueling  matches, the 2012 Uefa Europa League has finally reached it’s finale with two of Spain’s biggest clubs making the trip to Bucharest’s Arena Națională for the competition’s showpiece tonight.  The fans of both Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid are sure to provide a fantastic atmosphere from the moment they touch down at the Romanian capital’s Henri Coandă airport located on the outskirts of the city, and the match itself promises to be a mouth-watering affair.

Although the Europa League normally takes a backseat to the more lucrative Champions League, it is not devoid of goals or excitement in any way. This final features two of La Liga’s most dangerous attacks and several young stars who are looking to earn some recognition on a larger scale.

Each team has experienced tumultuous 2011-12 campaigns for different reasons. After stumbling out of the gate in La Liga under Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic have arguably had the tougher path to the Europa League final, having defeated Schalke 04 and Manchester United (including winning on the road twice) before toppling Portuguese giants, Sporting  in the semi-final. The club’s only previous European cup final appearance was in 1977, when they lost to Juventus in the Europa League’s old guise of the UEFA Cup.

Meanwhile, since sacking Gregorio Manzano and replacing him with club legend Diego Simeone, Atletico have battled their way up the table of La Liga, where they currently sit in fifth place with 53 points. Los Colchoneros have breezed through knockout play in the Europa League, defeating Lazio (4-1 aggregate), Besiktas (6-1), Hannover (4-2) and Valencia (5-2) to book their spot into the final. Radamel Falcao is third in La Liga’s Pichichi with 23 goals; only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have put the ball in the back of the net more frequently.

When it comes to the coaches, Marcelo Bielsa sends Athletic out in a formation that is probably best seen as a cross between a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and a 4-5-1. Along with a back four (anchored by Javi Martinez and Fernando Amorebieta) that is constantly moving (especially the full-backs Jon Aurtenetxe and Andoni Iraola bombing up the flanks), Athletic employ two holding midfielders, usually Ander Iturraspe and Oscar de Marcos. Ander Herrera plays in front of the duo and distributes balls out to the flanks, where Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta are stationed on the left and right respectively. Last but certainly not least is Fernando Llorente; the quintessential ‘number 9’ is extremely strong and clinical in the air. With his mix of skills combining with his 6-foot-5 frame, he is one of the most dangerous target men currently in world football.

Their opponents have improved considerably under Diego Simeone, who took over in January. The team’s main formation seems to be a cross between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-1-1, with youngster Adrian Lopez playing just behind Colombian super-striker Falcao. The Madrid club have taken a new direction under Simeone, playing aggressively with periods of intense pressing; however, this has led to an increase in fouls and cards.

Defenders Miranda, Diego Godin and Alvaro Dominguez are extremely tough and will create dozens of aerial challenges against Llorente. Look for left-back Filipe Luis to make darting runs up the pitch and supply crosses for Falcao, an incredible header of the ball despite his average height. Arda Turan and Diego are Atletico’s most creative players and have the dribbling capabilities to beat defenders and put shots on target.

Athletic can break through if they take advantage of its likelynumerical advantage in midfield; Bielsa will look to exploit an area that Atleti will be deficient in with the loss of Tiago due to a mindless red card in the semi-final against Valencia. Gabi will probably take the place of Tiago, and while he has been a respectable player for Atletico and Real Zaragoza the last few years, he may not be able to contain the firepower of the Basques. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will be busy against Athletic’s attack, but the 19-year old has firmly established himself as one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe.

Atletico’s firepower and pedigree is not to be underestimated in spite of the coaching change that occurred this season. Falcao and Adrian have lit up the Europa League, forming one of the most lethal partnerships on the continent. Although the 2010 heroics of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero will be missed greatly by Simeone’s side, there are several players that have remained with the club that will be determined to seize a second Europa League title. Moreover, Falcao scored the winning goal in last season’s final for FC Porto and is looking to win a second consecutive winner’s medal in Bucharest.

Athletic may have less European experience but this team is hungry for a trophy after a fantastic season. Los Leones have not won significant silverware since the 1983-84 season, a campaign which saw the Basques win the double of La Liga and the Copa del Rey. With two cup finals in one month (the Copa del Rey final is on the 25th), Bielsa’s men have the potential to pull off a double of their own that could spark a golden generation in Bilbao. Although the club is in its first European cup final for 35 years, Athletic Club are eager to prove that they are the emerging force in La Liga; whether they can do that this evening, is another matter.

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