Europa League

Out of the shadows

It may not be the all-Spanish European final that many had been hoping to see this month, but Wednesday's Europa League showdown between Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid should still offer something to whet the appetites of most football fans.

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When five Primera Division clubs made it through to the semi-finals of the two European competitions it was the prospective ' El Clasico' Champions League final showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid that attracted most attention.

But, with those two sides somewhat surprisingly being dumped out by Chelsea and Bayern Munich, it has given the chance to Europa League finalists Atletico and Athletic to show the footballing world there is much more to La Liga than just the big two.

It is an encounter that promises to have something for everyone.

For those who like their matches filled with thrills, spills and goals - the last time these two sides drew 0-0 against each other was back in 1998, and the 22 fixtures between the pair since then have produced an average of more than three goals per game.

There is evidence to suggest it will not be any different in Bucharest either, with Athletic having wowed much of Europe with their attractive and hugely effective high-tempo attacking football this season, not least in their quarter-final humbling of mighty Manchester United.

Star striker Fernando Llorente is a big threat both in the air and on the ground, while he is ably supported by a host of seemingly indefatigable team-mates such as Iker Muniain, Oscar de Marcos and Markel Susaeta.

Prompting from the middle of the park there is Ander Herrera while Spain internationals Javi Martinez and Andoni Iraola have also impressed during Athletic's run to their first European final since 1977.


New-look Atletico have also proved a formidable and entertaining side as they seek a second Europa League title in three years, winning 16 of 18 games in the competition this season while losing just once.

Adrian Lopez, Diego and Arda Turan have all done well in their first seasons at Atletico, but there is little doubt where the capital club's main threat lies - Radamel Falcao.

The Rojiblancos splashed out a club-record 40million euros on the Colombia international last summer to cover the loss of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan and the former Porto man has been a massive hit.

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The 26-year-old has added 10 goals to the Europa League-record 17 he netted in Porto's title-winning campaign last year, and has 33 overall for Atletico this term.

Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said: "It's going to be 50-50. We are more or less level in the league. In Athletic we know we are facing a great team where almost anything can happen, but we hope we can win it."

Aside from the promise of goals, the match should also appeal to the football romantics, with Athletic's success in reaching two cup finals this season - they are also in the Copa del Rey showpiece - a fairytale story.

The Basque club's philosophy of only selecting locally-produced players puts them at an obvious disadvantage to all of their rivals, and the prospect of Athletic returning to their past glory days seemed to be diminishing by the season in the modern world of big-money signings.

Indeed, Athletic almost saw their proud record of being one of only three clubs never to have been outside the Spanish top flight come to an end in 2007 when they avoided relegation by just a point after winning on the final day.

However, Athletic have not only become a force to be reckoned with in La Liga again, but they are within touching distance of a trophy double - having not tasted silverware since 1984.

Apprentice v master

Winger Susaeta said after his side booking their final spot: "It's been a beautiful week so far and what's vital now, given that Athletic have gone so many years without winning anything, is for us to ensure we win at least one of our two finals. The fans deserve something."

Tactical aficionados will also find the Europa League final an interesting case study as it pits apprentice Diego Simeone against master Marcelo Bielsa, both of whom are in their first seasons with their clubs.

The 56-year-old Bielsa, who was Simeone's former Argentina coach, has revolutionised Athletic's style of play this season and helped turn a promising young bunch of players into a side that has taken Europe by storm.

Simeone, 42, has also made a considerable impact since taking charge at Atletico in December, steeling up a Rojiblancos side that in recent years has been breathtaking going forward but often too generous at the back.

Simeone said: "It's great for us to meet in the final. We have a great mutual affection for each other. It's going to be very nice."

So, while the Barca-Real dream final may not be taking place this year, the Europa League showpiece looks to have everything needed to be a classic of its own.