It’s been a long, difficult season, but the moment Colchoneros around the world have been waiting for is finally upon us.
Atlético are currently in the Romanian capital of Bucharest preparing for Wednesday’s Europa League final, where they will meet La Liga rivals Athletic Bilbao.
Having overcome Fulham to win the competition in 2010, the red and whites are looking to regain the title that striker Radamel Falcao almost single-handedly won for FC Porto last season.
Kick-off in Bucharest’s 55,600 capacity National Stadium is all set for 20:45 CET.
16 years on from celebrating our Doblete as a player, Diego Simeone has the chance to write a new chapter in his Atlético Madrid legacy by returning to Neptuno as manager.
Since his December appointment, Cholo has masterminded victories in Rome, Istanbul, Hannover and Valencia, but will face arguably his toughest test yet in the form of Athletic, and former national team boss Marcelo Bielsa.
Our opponents have earned worldwide admiration for their energetic and passionate displays in this year’s Europa League, notably beating favourites Manchester United home and away in the round of 16, and will also be making their way to the Calderón in a few weeks time for the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona.
However, Atleti have quietly marched their way through the knock-out stages in ruthless fashion, winning 8 games out of 8 and scoring 19 times in the process.
In the league we sit four points clear of 10th placed Athletic, but much like ourselves in 2010, they have had to sacrifice domestic ambitions in favour of silverware.
Simeone is well aware of the threat posed by los Leones, but seemed confident in his team’s preparation and above all, ability, heading into the mammoth encounter.
“They are a team with a lot of intensity,” he told uefa.com, “a direct style of football, quick, brave, a team that isn’t afraid to play their way, even in away matches.”
“Knowing the team and their coach, they will be the same in any game, whether it’s a friendly or a final. We’ll need to be compact and fast, and more focused than in a league match.”
Having spent four years together under Bielsa for the Argentina national team, Cholo and his assistant Mono Burgos will be as familiar with his opposite number as anybody, but the man they call El Loco is always prone to springing a surprise and will have his side prepared to the very maximum come Wednesday evening.
“The teams are very evenly matched. I haven’t spoken to Bielsa but I have a great admiration for him,” said Simeone.
The two last went head-to-head back in March as a Falcao double inspired a 2-1 success, although Athletic won the reverse fixture 3-0 five months earlier when Gregorio Manzano was in charge.
With dreams of Champions League qualification still somewhat alive, Atlético have been forced to play at full strength in recent matches, although our midfield brains Diego and Arda Turan have seen their minutes rationed to ensure they are fully fit to take on the Basque side.
All 21 first team players made the trip to Romania as well as B-team top scorer Pedro Martín, who has been a fixture in our squad in the last month.
The youngster is likely to take a place on the bench too, as Tiago and Fran Mérida are unavailable due to suspension and ineligibility, respectively.
Captains Luis Perea and Antonio López, both of whom are leaving the club next month, and Sílvio are also injury doubts, but at least one of them should take a place on the bench.
Gabi will come in to captain the side in the absence of Tiago who, like Mérida, this time around was cup-tied for the 2010 final. He was shown red in the semi-final at Valencia for an altercation with Roberto Soldado.
Athletic, on the other hand, have been able to rest key players since overcoming Sporting to reach the final two weeks ago, and will be able to call upon their trusted 11 as a result.
The club are said to be desperate to tie down Bielsa for another year, although the 56-year-old tactician is focussing solely on tomorrow’s game.
“We will try to play naturally, with a lack of fear, because this will bring us closer to victory,” he said.
“Throughout every game, regardless of the importance, I haven’t seen a problem with confidence or anxiety yet that the team hasn’t been able to resolve themselves.”
On his relationship with Simeone and Burgos, he insisted there would be little room for sentiment and that no direct contact between them had been made.
“We have agreed not to speak until a month after the final. Of course, I want to win, regardless of whether two players I used to coach are in the other dugout or not.”
Many have billed the game as a duel between two of Europe’s most feared centre-forwards, and just for the final, two local stations in Bucharest have been renamed in honour of Atlético’s Colombian star Radamel Falcao and ‘the lion king’, Athletic’s Fernando Llorente.
On the subject of the final, the Spanish international echoed his manager’s statements, and hailed the achievements of his team over the past season.
“We have really had a great season in Europe, and that makes us even more determined to win,” he declared.
“A year ago nobody would have imagined that we could enjoy such a successful campaign,” adding, “We now have to rise to the occasion, and end the season on a high.”
“Atlético are a team we know well, and they have been very impressive in Europe.”
For his part, Falcao is just one goal shy of becoming the outright top scorer in the competition for a second year running, and has scored against every team he has faced so far.
“We have aimed to be in Bucharest all season, and after a great Europa League campaign we are here,” he said. “My obsession is to bring the trophy back to the fans in Neptuno.”
“I would like to be top scorer again, but the most important thing is that the team manages to win.”
Win or lose, the team will need to pick themselves up by Sunday for another big game at Villarreal, as we try one last time to make it into next season’s Champions League.
“We’re not satisfied with one or the other; we want to win the Europa League and finish in the top four.” said Falcao. “We have a lot of ambition and both are still possible, so why give up on a competition when you can go for both?”
Should Atleti emerge victorious, we’ll also break the record of 11 for the most consecutive European wins, a distinction we currently share with Barcelona (2003) and Ajax (1988).
Fans have travelled in their thousands over the past week, and with seas of red and white flooding the Romanian capital, we are all set for a classic final amongst two of Spain’s most passionate clubs.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Asenjo
Defenders: Godín, Antonio López, Filipe, Dominguez, Perea, Sílvio, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Salvio, Arda, Assunção, Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Diego
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Pizzi, Pedro
Athletic match selection:
Goalkeepers: Iraizoz, Raúl
Defenders: Amorebieta, Iraola, San José, Aurtenetxe, Ekiza
Midfielders: Javi Martínez, De Marcos, Gabilondo, Susaeta, Ander, Iturraspe, Iñigo Pérez
Forwards: Llorente, Muniain, Toquero, Ibai
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Germany)