Atlético Madrid to break romantic hearts in Bucharest
WednesdayÃ¢ÂÂs Europa League final is another sure sign of why AtlÃÂ©tico 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 arenÃ¢ÂÂt - and thatÃ¢ÂÂs Athletic Bilbao.
As a cheesy tabloid would write, Athletic Bilbao are the PeopleÃ¢ÂÂs 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 WednesdayÃ¢ÂÂs final as although AtlÃÂ©tico Madrid are incredibly flaky in la Liga this season Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ Diego SimeoneÃ¢ÂÂs 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 teamÃ¢ÂÂs 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 CalderÃÂ³n at the end of each half against Valencia in the first semi-final. Nevertheless, even if AtlÃÂ©tico are winning their fans wonÃ¢ÂÂt be even remotely relaxed until the final whistle has been blown.
Two years ago, AtlÃÂ©tico beat Fulham in another battle to be the Best Side In Europe Likely To Finish About Seventh In Their League. However, the experience wonÃ¢ÂÂt weigh too much in AtlÃÂ©ticoÃ¢ÂÂs favour, because they've long since lost the front four behind that victory, Diego ForlÃÂ¡n, Kun AgÃÂ¼ero, JosÃÂ© Antonio Reyes and Simao. Their replacements Ã¢ÂÂ Falcao, Arda Turan, Diego and AdrÃÂan Ã¢ÂÂ aren't quite as sexy and strong but remain more than useful on their day.
The message from manager Diego Simeone Ã¢ÂÂ aside from the usual mantra about his players showing they are men, flapping their cojones about and giving it their all on the field Ã¢ÂÂ 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. Ã¢ÂÂExperience is important, but passion is more so,Ã¢ÂÂ explained the Argentinian. Ã¢ÂÂYou 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
Rivals Simeone and Bielsa, together in their Argentina days
While AtlÃÂ©ticoÃ¢ÂÂs pre-match preparations may well have involved being shouted at for hours on end and charging into shop-window dummies with Fernando LlorenteÃ¢ÂÂs face fixed to the front, the more sedate Marcelo Bielsa will have been inflicting days and day of AtlÃÂ©tico Madrid videos on his footballers, such is the geeky gafferÃ¢ÂÂs love of that type of thing. Indeed, LLL imagines Javi MartÃÂnez 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 queenÃ¢ÂÂs family and Vlad the ImpalerÃ¢ÂÂs 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, AtlÃÂ©tico Madrid has been considerably more frenetic and frenzied, with the sideÃ¢ÂÂs philosophy as usual represented by the phrase Ã¢ÂÂcobbled togetherÃ¢ÂÂ.
Nevertheless, while LLLÃ¢ÂÂs romantic heart would like to see Athletic Bilbao returning to Spain as Europa League champions, the pragmatic head puts AtlÃÂ©tico Madrid as Wednesday nightÃ¢ÂÂs winners with a second European triumph in three years.