Falcao helps Atletico triumph again in Europa League
Radamel Falcao’s golden boot and coach Diego Simeone’s tactical nous helped dominant Atletico Madrid claim a second Europa League title in three seasons with a commanding 3-0 win over fellow Spaniards Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.
Colombian striker Falcao struck two superb goals, having also hit the winner for Porto in the 2011 final before a big-money move to Spain, and Brazilian Diego snapped up a late third as Simeone triumphed over fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa.
Falcao, top scorer in the competition for a second straight season, netted a first-half double to put Atletico in control before Diego, who was suspended for the 2009 final with Werder Bremen, sealed an emphatic win five minutes from time.
It was a fitting reward for Simeone who has revitalised 2010 Europa League winners Atletico since taking over in late December at the Calderon, where he became a fan favourite as a player in winning a league and cup double in 1996.
The 42-year-old former Argentina captain also lifted the UEFA Cup as a player with Inter Milan in 1998.
“Tonight I am feeling really strong emotions,” Simeone told a news conference.
“A lot was at stake, people are very fond of me back in Madrid and they really expected this win... I’m really happy to give the fans of Atletico Madrid a new championship as a coach.
“We were very precise, very accurate... we felt comfortable on the pitch. Technically and tactically it was a good match for us.”
Bilbao, playing in only their second European final and first for 35 years, tried to replicate the same attacking intensity that brought exciting knockout stage wins over Manchester United and Schalke 04.
But for the first 70 minutes Athletic, who only field players of Basque origin, had their cutting edge blunted by an Atletico side moulded in the steely ways of former midfield enforcer Simeone.
Imposing centre forward Fernando Llorente and mohawk-haired teenager Iker Muniain have tormented defences all season but they got little change out of Atletico’s well-organised rearguard, and it was not until the introduction of Ibai Gomez at halftime that Bilbao offered a threat going forward.
By then the impressive Falcao had almost sealed their fate.
The Colombian set a European competition record with 17 goals in Porto’s triumphant 2010-11 campaign, including the winner in the 1-0 defeat of Braga in an all-Portuguese final.
Faced with having to replace the departed Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, the 40 million euros ($51,73 million) Atletico splashed out on Falcao appears to have been well spent.
He curled a delightful left-foot shot past flailing goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz after seven minutes and bamboozled the Bilbao defence again in the 34th when he twisted and turned to fire home from close range.
It was a goal to savour, the frontman dragging the ball back to leave defender Jon Aurtenetxe on the floor before firing over helpless keeper Gorka Iraizoz who had already gone to ground.
Only the post denied Falcao a hat-trick 10 minutes from time when his deflected effort hit the left upright.
The Bucharest final was billed as a showdown between managerial friends — Simeone having played during the last years of his international career for Argentina under Bielsa.
Simeone, dressed head to toe in black, regularly encroached outside his technical area while the bespectacled Bielsa, also in black, crouched low to the turf as he tried to plot a way back into the game against domestic rivals they know well.
As the Madrid fans at one end taunted their Basque rivals with chants of “Viva Espana”, Bilbao finally lifted their game midway through the second half as Atletico were content to sit back, soak up pressure and launch the odd counter attack.
Gomez sent a fierce volley just over, then soon after Atletico dithered in defence and were lucky when Oscar de Marcos again failed to hit the target.
An Atletico defence that had been largely untroubled suddenly looked uncomfortable. Markel Susaeta’s shot deflected wide before he was denied by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
However, their efforts counted for little as Atletico broke away and Diego was rewarded for a performance of midfield guile when he slotted home a third to emphatically end the contest.
Bielsa, who has also steered Bilbao to the King’s Cup final in his first season in charge of the north-coast club, said Atletico deserved their victory and took the blame in defeat.
“We did not defend well, we were not decisive in attack, we played much less than we are capable of doing,” he said.
“The difference between the two teams is now what we saw today and the finger of responsibility points directly to the person who is in charge.”