Wilson: Thoughts on Atletico's victory

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson shares some thoughts on Atletico Madrid's Europa League victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Diego scores the third goal for Atletico.

Atletico win the Europa League

Diego praise for 'almost perfect' Atletico

Bielsa shoulders blame for Bilbao loss

Falcao and other key players

Radamel Falcao, understandably, took the bulk of the praise and - for the second year running - was named man of the match in the Europa League final. His two goals were both magnificently taken, both in terms of the finish and the creation of the shooting opportunity, and he tormented Fernando Amorebieta all night. He was not, though, Atletico's only hero. 

Holding midfielders rarely get the praise they deserve, but Mario Suarez, much criticised this season for his inconsistency, was superb at the back of the midfield, dropping in to provide a third centre-back when necessary, helping to snuff out the runs of Oscar De Marcos and snaffling the second ball when Fernando Llorente won knockdowns. Alongside him, a slightly more creative role, Gabi was also excellent.

Muniain's tears

There's usually something distasteful about a footballer weeping in defeat; it is, after all, only football, and the tendency is to see the behaviour as brattish, as typical of a breed of over-privileged young men who have lost all sense of proportion and respond to setbacks with all the emotional maturity of a toddler. There are, though, exceptions and Iker Muniain's weeping is one of them. Perhaps he was simply a child screaming at not getting his own way, but it was easy to see in his tears as Diego added the third goal something far more profound.

Athletic have, this season, become the neutrals' favourite. They were magnificent against Manchester United, Schalke 04 and at times against Sporting in the knockout phase - and against PSG in the groups. They have played with a dynamism and a flair that, in the words of the Guardian writer Rob Smyth, "reminded us why we fell in love with football in the first place". 

And now, almost certainly, Europe's big clubs will come in and help themselves. This was probably a one in a lifetime opportunity, a rare occasion when the planets were aligned and a side based on local talent (seven of the starting eleven were born in Bilbao or the surrounding area) played wonderful football under a visionary coach. 

It could have been a victory for a team still firmly rooted in its community - too firmly, some would say - playing to an idiosyncratic philosophy. It wasn't; and it almost certainly won't be - can't be - next. . Any neutral, anybody who remembers football's age of financial innocence should shed a tear for that.

The pitch invasion

This was a Spanish final but it was also a Romanian occasion. The new national arena in Bucharest is magnificent, the steep-sided stands providing a real sense of spectacle, but there was a reminder of the other side of modern Romania - the undercurrent of dissatisfaction that manifests at so many stadiums.

There were chants against the league president Dumitru Dragomir, calling on him to be sent to jail, and there was also, midway through the first half, a two-man pitch invasion. It was fairly half-hearted, never endangered any of the players and was over within seconds, but it did initially raise the spectre of what had happened the night before, when a fan's involvement in a mass on-field brawl between the two teams caused the Cluj derby to be abandoned.

These fans, it turned out, were protesting about the decision to expel Universitatea Craiova from the league after they refused to accept the league's judgement and turned to a civil court in a dispute with their former coach Victor Piturca.

Javi Martinez

One of Marcelo Bielsa's favoured and most controversial tactics is to deploy a holding midfielder at centre-back, the logic being that having a player who is comfortable on the ball in the position enables him to initiate attacks and to maintain possession.

Javi Martinez is one of those Bielsa has shuffled back, but he seems to have grown into the position. As Falcao broke midway through the first half, his shepherding of him was exemplary, holding him up, never committing, and so allowing defenders to get back. The contrast with his central defensive partner, Fernando Amorebieta, who was regularly turned inside out by the Colombian, was only too obvious.

Marcelo Bielsa

Such has been the surge of praise of Marcelo Bielsa in the past few months, there was always going to be a backlash. The extremes of opinion rarely make much sense: masterminding a victory over Manchester United didn't make him a great coach and defeat to Atletico doesn't make him a bad one. Still, the question remains of how good a coach he is. 

As a thinker and a theorist he is supreme - as anybody who's ever listened to Pep Guardiola or Jorge Sampaoli eulogise him would attest. Diego Simeone, even, who played under Bielsa with the Argentina national team, speaks of what an influence he was (although his version of the philosophy is far more pragmatic).

As a coach, though, it's hard to shake off the thought that he is too idealistic. He's spent 13 years in charge of the Argentina and Chile national sides, which reduces his opportunities for titles, but three Argentinian titles and an Olympic gold isn't a great return. Even more worrying is the fact he's lost now in three major finals - the Copa Libertadores with Newell's Old Boys in 1992 and the Copa America with Argentina in 2004 before Wednesday; a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona later this month could make it four frustrating runners-up medals.

On the other hand, this is Athletic. They've only been in one European final before. They have a small squad and limited resources and their Basque-only policy means they realistically can only ever aspire to be a midtable side. To take them to a Europa League final is a stunning achievement. In a a sense, for them, the spectacle is almost as important as the results given silverware is such a remote possibility: and in that regard it may be that Bielsa is the perfect coach for them.



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