Atlético Madrid to break romantic hearts in Bucharest

Wednesday’s Europa League final is another sure sign of why Atlético Madrid are known as one of the most unlucky, put-upon clubs in the world, in that most of a neutral bent watching the game will dearly want the Rojiblancos to lose the match. But not for who they are, but instead for who they aren’t - and that’s Athletic Bilbao.

As a cheesy tabloid would write, Athletic Bilbao are the People’s Players who have stolen the hearts of most in Spain and around the world for their homegrown talent, passionate football and never-say-die spirit, and for charitably giving Gaizka Toquero something to do in life. Giving Manchester United a good thrashing on a couple of occasions certainly sold them to the majority of the English market.

However, the watching world may be a tad disappointed come the end of Wednesday’s final as although Atlético Madrid are incredibly flaky in la Liga this season – their chance of finishing fourth on the last day of la Liga is due to everyone else being a bit hopeless rather than Atleti being particularly good – Diego Simeone’s side have been truly dominant in the Europa League both home and away, having won all eight of their knockout games against Lazio, Besiktas, Hannover 96 and Valencia.

Even the team’s domestic tendency of throwing away late leads in injury time has largely been absent in Europe, aside from a few wobbly moments in the Vicente Calderón at the end of each half against Valencia in the first semi-final. Nevertheless, even if Atlético are winning their fans won’t be even remotely relaxed until the final whistle has been blown.

Two years ago, Atlético beat Fulham in another battle to be the Best Side In Europe Likely To Finish About Seventh In Their League. However, the experience won’t weigh too much in Atlético’s favour, because they've long since lost the front four behind that victory, Diego Forlán, Kun Agüero, José Antonio Reyes and Simao. Their replacements – Falcao, Arda Turan, Diego and Adrían – aren't quite as sexy and strong but remain more than useful on their day.

The message from manager Diego Simeone – aside from the usual mantra about his players showing they are men, flapping their cojones about and giving it their all on the field – has been about having a bit of fun on the pitch too, as much as it is possible with leg-breaking tackles being dished out. “Experience is important, but passion is more so,” explained the Argentinian. “You wait for a final all your life. You can end up playing two or three, but you have to face them as if they were your last.”

Rivals Simeone and Bielsa, together in their Argentina days

While Atlético’s pre-match preparations may well have involved being shouted at for hours on end and charging into shop-window dummies with Fernando Llorente’s face fixed to the front, the more sedate Marcelo Bielsa will have been inflicting days and day of Atlético Madrid videos on his footballers, such is the geeky gaffer’s love of that type of thing. Indeed, LLL imagines Javi Martínez switching on his in-flight entertainment system hoping to catch something soothing involving Jennifer Aniston and finding a two-hour scouting report on Juanfran popping up on his monitor.

A reported 20,000 Spanish fans of both sides have made it to Bucharest and will be trying to hoover up some of the 32,000-odd tickets made available to UEFA, sponsors, the local beauty queen’s family and Vlad the Impaler’s cohorts. And those who get in will see a fine final between two teams with two very different philosophies.

While Athletic are most un-Spanish in that their campaign has been carefully thought through and is the fruit of many years of planning and steady progression, Atlético Madrid has been considerably more frenetic and frenzied, with the side’s philosophy as usual represented by the phrase ‘cobbled together’.

Nevertheless, while LLL’s romantic heart would like to see Athletic Bilbao returning to Spain as Europa League champions, the pragmatic head puts Atlético Madrid as Wednesday night’s winners with a second European triumph in three years.