Wednesday 17 January 2018

Drama in store as Athletic Bilbao lock horns with Atletico Madrid in Europa final

Pete Jenson

It has been an emotional ride so far, and nothing about tonight's Europa League final suggests it will be anything but dramatic, as free-scoring Athletic Bilbao face the only team to have scored more than them in the tournament, Atletico Madrid.

Bilbao's Marcelo Bielsa is in one dugout and Diego Simeone -- his captain when he coached Argentina -- is in the other.

The teams boast two of the finest No 9s in the world in Fernando Llorente and Radamel Falcao.

Around 22,000 of the two noisiest sets of supporters in Spain will gather in the Bucharest National Stadium.

And as if all that were not enough, there is that other great aid to goal-laden drama -- tired legs: these two sides have played 117 games between them this season.

"There's a very good chance they can win it," was Alex Ferguson's appraisal of Bilbao after they knocked his Manchester United side out of the Europa League 5-3 on aggregate in the last 16.


Whether or not they do indeed win their first European trophy tonight, Bilbao have had an incredible season.

Their 19-year-old forward Iker Muniain explained how coach Bielsa's persistence with a relentless pressing game, and his tendency to stick with a settled side, have paid dividends.

Muniain said: "In October they started talking about rotation, that we could not make it to January without rotation.

"In November they said the same and in December the same again. Now we are in May and we have just three games left.

"We are tired, but no more than the opposition. And we go into the game with everyone available."

Bielsa's players complained of being "on the verge of suffocation" when he came in last summer demanding they ditch their largely long-ball football for a rapid-tempo passing style.

"Madrid and Barca don't exist on the verge of suffocation, they exist in suffocation," he told them.

"The suffering becomes addictive," admitted Muniain, who is more at home than most with that.

Simeone played 30 of his 106 games for Argentina for Bielsa, who said of him then that "where his technique does not take him, his fighting spirit does".

The former midfielder has moulded his Atletico team in his own abrasive style but they can play as well: they are the Europa's League top scorers with 30 goals, two more than tonight's opponents. (© Independent News Service)

Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao

Live, TV3, 7.45

Irish Independent

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