Early Doors

Atletico and Europa League find credibility in each other

Early Doors

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Sadly, last night's Europa League final did not quite live up to expectations. It was a shame for the competition, which has provided such excitement in its latter stages this season.

It felt as if those who had followed the competition throughout deserved the post-Christmas thrills which, for the most part, were all provided by teams who had been in the group stage rather than just parachuted in from the Champions League. Considering the length of the competition (Fulham, for example, began their qualification campaign in June), the 12 separate groups to keep track of and the interminable legal wrangle over FC Sion's expulsion and Celtic's reinstatement, it was good to have a climax that so many were looking forward to.

Still, perhaps the very fact that so many were anticipating a belter of a final in the much-maligned tournament is a mark of real progress for the cup's reputation.

As it was, Atletico Madrid outclassed a fatigued and nervy looking Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in Bucharest.

If the fixture of Atletico-Athletic is a little bit of a mouthful, pity the poor official UEFA commentators, who have to refer to all clubs and venues by their full names at all times. Hence, Club Atletico de Madrid beat Athletic Club at the Stadionul Nacional Arena to win the competition for the second time in three seasons.

So often the team with the more remarkable run to a final is the one that falls at the final hurdle. The side that has picked up all the neutral good will as they went from underdogs to potential winners is always susceptible to running out of steam as they approach the summit.

So it proved with Marcelo Bielsa's breathless Bilbao side, who were playing their 61st match of the season in the Romanian capital last night, more than any other team in Europe this season. With one league game left and the Copa del Rey final to come, they will have played 63 by the time the campaign is through, and several players from the Basque squad will no doubt be involved at Euro 2012 this summer.

While Athletic's players were not fully on song, however, a great deal of credit must go to Atletico for what is a rare example of them getting the job done properly.

Two years ago they virtually smuggled their way into the final, where they prevailed after being taken to extra time by Fulham. This season, they won the trophy in far more emphatic fashion, winning 17 of their 19 matches in the competition including all of their last 12.

In spite of it taking half a league season's worth of matches for them to win the trophy, Atletico are still in with a shout of a Champions League place going into this weekend's final round of fixtures. If they win at Villarreal and fourth-placed Malaga fail to against Sporting Gijon on Sunday, Atletico will sneak into the top four via their head-to-head record against the big-spending south-coast club.

For a club which has so often been a well-supported but mismanaged joke since they last won La Liga in 1996, Atletico's success in Bucharest has been built on sound recruitment and good decision-making.

When both Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan left last summer for a combined £42 million (the vast majority of course being the £38m which took Aguero to Manchester City), Atletico were left with a big cardboard cheque with lots of zeros on it but no strikers.

Enter £35m signing Radamel Falcao, the Colombian striker who scored 17 times in Porto's victorious Europa League campaign the previous season, and free agent Adrian Lopez, top scorer at that summer's European Under-21 Championship, which Spain won, naturally.

Falcao's excellent brace in the final confirmed him once again as the competition's top scorer with 12 goals, while Adrian finished third in the goal charts with eight to his name.

There were several other big changes, too. Out went Jose Antonio Reyes for £3m, and in his place came Turkey captain Arda Turan for £9m. Playmaker Simao Sabrosa left for Besiktas, and in came Diego from Wolfsburg, initially on loan but surely now he will remain permanently. The Brazilian scored the third for Atletico last night, banishing the heartache of missing the last ever UEFA Cup final through suspension and capping off a fine season which has reinvigorated his stalling career.

In goal, the loss of David de Gea was compensated not only by the £19m Manchester United paid for him, but also by the season-long loan of Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea. The young Belgian may well be off to Stamford Bridge in the summer, but Atletico have the money in the bank and the upward trajectory to ensure that replacing him should not be too difficult if they feel Sergio Asenjo is not up to the task.

But perhaps the best bit of recruitment of all was hiring Diego Simeone as manager just before Christmas. With Falcao's goals the only thing keeping Atletico out of a relegation fight in the first half of the season, the club fired Gregorio Manzano and replaced him with their former midfield general. The turnaround that 'Cholo' has engineered, culminating in him defeating his former manager for Argentina in last night's final, has been nothing short of remarkable.

Both Atletico and the Europa League have endured their fair share of stick in recent times, a lot of it justified. Let's hope this year's competition and its victors can both capitalise on their newfound credibility.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Words are going to fail me. I'm so proud. We got ourselves in a brilliant situation and what a fantastic fightback that was. If they had got the equaliser I could not see us coming back. But we're going to Wembley again, it's just magnificent." — Blackpool manager Ian Holloway is ecstatic after his team's 2-2 draw at Birmingham City saw them narrowly through to the Championship play-off final, where they will face West Ham United for the chance to return to the Premier League. The highlight of the match for Early Doors, however, was former Tangerines midfielder Charlie Adam's revelation that Holloway once gave a Christmas team talk using teddy bears to mark out the team formation. Please come back, Olly.

FOREIGN VIEW: "It's one of the worst pieces of news we could have expected but we have to deal with it and find solutions, although it won't be easy. Puyi is a titan and his absence means Spain is losing part of its soul. We are talking about a player who is an example on and off the pitch and is key in both matches and at training camps." — Spain manager Vicente del Bosque laments the likely absence centre-back Carles Puyol at this summer's European Championships through injury. Puyi?

COMING UP: Zonal Marking's Michael Cox will be giving his Tactical Brain another workout for us, there will be another in-depth look into how teams are preparing for Euro 2012 with Eurospot and there is the second part of our interview with Bryan Robson to come too.

In terms of live action, that's not so good Al. Macedonia U21 v N Ireland U21 and Hertha v Fortuna Dusseldorf is about the size of it.

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