Bucharest anticipates Spanish sizzler
With the sun beaming down and pints of Silva beer slipping down, fans of Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid painted an idyllic football scene in Bucharest on Tuesday - basking in the build-up to a first all-Spanish European final since Sevilla vanquished Espanyol in 2007. That match was a particularly absorbing encounter as the Sevillistas claimed a penalty shootout triumph, and there is a feeling among supporters and journalists alike that another classic may be in store at the Arena Națională.
Bucharest has certainly done a sterling job of throwing its arms open to welcome the influx of Spanish fans, with Romania relishing the opportunity to host its first ever major European final - the country's first involvement in a showpiece event since Steaua Bucharest lost to AC Milan in the 1989 European Cup final. Plastered with Europa League paraphernalia, Henri Cooanda Airport is where visitors' football festival begins, with friendly faced, crimson T-shirted UEFA volunteers greeting new arrivals with an "Hola, bienvinido Bucharest".
In the city centre, well-equipped fan zones provide places of partisan refuge for whichever red-and-white striped team one happens to follow. At Atletico Madrid's home from home near Cismigiu Park, where the drinks and the songs flow equally freely, father and son Jose and Ricardo Ramirez were growing more confident by the minute that a second taste of Europa League glory in three seasons beckons.
"Most Atletico fans celebrated the 2010 Europa League like it was the last trophy we would ever win, as we had waited almost 50 years after winning our first European tournament [the 1962 Cup Winners' Cup]," dad Jose tells ESPN. "To be back in a final again just two years later is incredible. Once again we will enjoy every minute of being involved and I really believe the team can do it again. Back then we had [Diego] Forlan and now we have [Radamel] Falcao - with such good strikers, anything is possible."
After swapping stories of Hamburg 2010 with Rojiblancos supporters, regaling them with tales of a chance post-match meeting with Diego Forlan outside the Veltins Arena and late-night high jinks on the Reeperbahn , it was time to leave the fan festivities behind and head west to the crown jewel in Romania's football crown.
The Arena Națională is a spectacular sight, with its cascading blue, yellow and red seats visually stunning and its facilities state of the art; the 55,600 capacity ground is part of a wider sports complex, with national tennis and football centres attempting to unearth the new Ilie Năstase and Gheorghe Hagi right on the stadium's doorstep. It was opened last September, with Romania's 0-0 Euro 2012 qualifying draw with France the first match played; the pitch cut up embarrassingly in that opening game, but the Romanian Football Federation insists that it will be fit for the occasion when Athletic and Atletico do battle.
The final has been billed as a clash of football philosophies, with Marcelo Bielsa's purists taking on Diego Simeone's pragmatists, and it is claimed that the possibility of a poor playing surface has left the latter considerably less perturbed than the former. Athletic have won plenty of admirers this season for their tiki-taka approach, which has left Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting exhausted and eliminated in the past three rounds of the Europa League, and has also served them well in the Copa del Rey, helping them reach a final against Barcelona on May 25.
Simeone's Rojiblancos, in contrast, have forged a reputation for playing effective, counter-attacking football - though to label them a 'substance over style' outfit is to do them a disservice. Atletico have, in fact, comprehensively outscored Athletic in the Europa League this term, netting an average of 2.33 goals per game (42 in 18) compared with 1.86 (28 in 15) for Los Leones.
Both teams arrived at the stadium on Tuesday night for open training sessions and pre-match press gatherings, with the words "nerves" and "experience" used painfully frequently - the Spanish media seemingly unwilling to settle for just a single answer to the questions "will nerves play a part?" and "will experience play a part?"
The battle between the two Argentine managers represents an intriguing sub-plot of master versus apprentice, Simeone having played under Bielsa for six years with the national team between 1998 and 2004. Keen to better understand the relationship between the pair, the younger of the compatriots was probed for his thoughts on Bielsa but was, to put it mildly, not forthcoming. "I am not here to remember past memories. I am here to play a final," he replied curtly to one reporter. "I've already previously declared my admiration for Marcelo Bielsa but these memories of the past have nothing to do with the final."
Simeone was unusually subdued throughout his press conference, which was of course attributed to "nerves" by the raft of anxiety-adoring journalists present. Perhaps his most telling response came when queried about his experience of big-game situations as a player, which seemed to indicate he was pining for those days when he bossed the midfields of Lazio and Inter Milan.
"It's better to be a player because a coach has to go through many different ideas and watch many previous games to prepare," he said. "For a player, playing in a final is the pinnacle - when you step out on the pitch it is a unique experience and you need to give it his all. I have tried to transmit to the players all that I can but it will be up to them."
For opposite number Bielsa, Wednesday's final is a chance to enter into Athletic's history books by guiding the club to their first ever piece of European silverware. His side are favourites with the bookies and if reports are to be believed, Athletic fans' belief in the team was, quite literally, spilling over when supporters popped open numerous bottles of champagne in premature celebration on a flight over with the players. The Romanian public, too, appear to have adopted Athletic as their own, but wily veteran Bielsa is taking nothing for granted.
"When one has to face a match that is a final, the result will be irreversible and it will define the squad in the tournament," he said. "You have a whole range of emotions that repeat themselves: nerves, ambition, hope - they are common to any final when something important is at stake ... playing a final always means a greater demand, but we want the time to come to showcase all that we can do on the pitch."
With Athletic's proud tradition of developing young Basque players finally appearing to reap rewards - Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniaín and Markel Susaeta among their stars - Bielsa was keen to pay tribute to the club's long-held policy of bringing through the homegrown talents who he hopes will fire his side to glory.
"In clubs like Athletic Bilbao, what happens in the present is always very much linked to what has already occurred in the past, our club feeds itself and tries to train players form a young age in order to have them on the senior team later on in their careers. Obviously, those who've been training these players over the last decade or so have done a fantastic job and now it's our turn to make the most of what has been produced."
Expectations of a 'classic', particularly in a final, can often result in bitter disappointment, but Bucharest is nonetheless buoyed for Wednesday's clash between entertaining Athletic and effective Atletico. There were no shirts of either side on display among the starry-eyed Romanian children playing in the shadow of Arena Națională on Tuesday, but those clad in the colours of Barcelona and Real Madrid may well be swayed should the two Spanish sides who have progressed furthest in Europe this season put on a suitable spectacle.