Athletic seeks European seal

Marcelo Bielsa’s team aiming for first continental trophy against Atlético

Athletic players celebrate a Fernando Llorente goal at Old Trafford.
Athletic players celebrate a Fernando Llorente goal at Old Trafford. PAUL ELLIS (AFP)

"El Loco" (The Madman) takes on "El Cholo" (The Indian) in Bucharest on Wednesday as two Spanish sides coached by Argentineans battle for the Europa League title.

Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao and Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid meet on the turf of the National Arena (8.45pm, Telecinco) after a grueling campaign for both clubs. Atlético's seventh-placed Liga finish last season obliged the team to start its season in July with a Europa League third-qualifying-round match, while Athletic joined the competition in the next phase and enjoyed a walkover when Trabzonspor, its playoff-round opponent, was promoted to the Champions League after the expulsion of its Turkish rival Fenerbahçe over match-fixing allegations.

Now, with 117 games between them this season, 90 minutes separate Athletic from its first European trophy and Atlético from a third. Madrid's rojiblancos won the inaugural Europa League in 2010 through Diego Forlán's extra-time goal against Fulham, adding to a Cup Winners' Cup success in 1962. The closest Athletic has come to continental glory was the 1977 Uefa Cup, lost to Juventus on away goals. It would have been doubly frustrating as AC Milan and Barcelona had both been put to the sword en route to the final.

A similarly swashbuckling path to this season's Europa League final has been cut by Bielsa's side, which demolished Manchester United over two legs and ambushed Schalke in Gelsenkirchen.

But Athletic has played the part of bridesmaid many times since it last laid hands on silverware through a league and cup double in 1984; a second-placed Liga finish in 1998 and two King's Cup runners-up showings in 1985 and 2009. After tonight's clash, the season will still hold one final opportunity for a Basque success, when Athletic takes on Barcelona in a repeat of the 2009 King's Cup final.

There is a palpable desire amid Bilbao's ranks to finally arrive at the altar, not least because keeping Bielsa's side together is going to be increasingly difficult. Covetous eyes from across Europe have alighted on San Mamés, particularly drawn to World Cup-winners Fernando Llorente and Javi Martínez, as well as the youthful talents of Oscar de Marcos, Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta.

Atlético can perhaps go into the game with slightly less pressure on its shoulders; for the first half of the season a relegation battle seemed more likely than a European final, although its final Liga match next weekend carries more weight than that of Athletic. Should Málaga slip up at home to a Sporting Gijón side facing the drop, Simeone's side can snatch the final Champions League spot with victory at Villarreal.

Goals are likely to flow in Bucharest despite the tendency for finals to be cagey affairs. In the tournament proper, Atlético and Athletic have banged in 58 goals between them, with 19 and 17 respectively in the knockout stages. Atlético striker Radamel Falcao was the tournament's top scorer last season with 17 and he can repeat the feat with a single strike to take his tally to one more than Schalke's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Falcao's striking sidekick, Adrián López, has bagged eight, Llorente seven and Susaeta and Muniain five each. Diego, Atlético's Brazilian playmaker, leads the assists chart with six.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS