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May 9, 2012

Ruthless Atletico rule Romania

It has often been said that success breeds success and, on a memorable night in Bucharest, it was Atletico Madrid and their leading light Falcao whose eminence exemplified that very sentiment. Two years ago, Atletico had been without a major European trophy in almost half a century, but a pair of fine finishes from their record-breaking striker, and a third from Brazilian playmaker Diego, ensured the Rojiblancos ruled Romania to claim their second Europa League trophy in just three years.

Two titles, but two very different methods of victory. Against Fulham in 2010, Atletico were an irresistible attacking force, inspired by the twin striking talents of Sergio Aguero and match-winner Diego Forlan. Though a prolific South American marksman again led the line this time, Athletic Bilbao were beaten by a side built in the image of manager Diego Simeone, possessing the sort of positional discipline and commitment that marked the Argentine out as one of the most respected defensive midfielders in the game during his playing career.

That Simeone's tactics bested his one-time national team boss Marcelo Bielsa must have been particularly satisfying and outsmarting a famously astute manager is an achievement that demands commendation. Despite Bielsa's best efforts, Athletic had been hyped into orbit before the final, the European media who had seen them dispatch Manchester United in emphatic fashion in the last 16 drooling over an attractive passing style that has regularly been compared to soon to be ex-European champions Barcelona. Like their Catalan counterparts, though, Athletic tasted a bitter continental defeat, frustrated by an Atletico team happy to let them overplay the ball high up the pitch.

A 3-0 scoreline was perhaps a touch harsh on Los Leones and while the result, as Bielsa put it afterwards, "exaggerated the differences" between the sides, it also served to highlight the major weaknesses in Athletic's approach - at times it was remarkable how much space was afforded to Atletico in the channels and between the midfield and defence. Bielsa gave a frank, honest assessment of his side's failings post match, repeating several times that he felt "personally responsible" for defeat.

"I am responsible for how my team played and we did not manage to accomplish our goal - of course I feel tremendously disappointed," he said. "We certainly didn't expect this result and we didn't expect such a difference between what we thought we could do and how we actually performed on the pitch... The players are devastated - it's only natural. These are feelings that you don't have to avoid or play down.

"There was a stark, huge difference between the two teams. We both had opportunities but the type of game we played was what our opponents wanted. They set the stage to play their game and to impose their style of play and we did quite the contrary. We wanted to play a type of game and we didn't manage to do that. I feel personally responsible for this result."

While Atletico were able to play the counter-attacking style they have favoured and mastered this season, the real difference between the champions and the runners-up was one man: Falcao. His prowess in front of goal is hardly a secret, as his 27 previous Europa League goals testify, but Atletico were simply powerless to stop the Colombian. Starting the day level with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar at the summit of the competition's scoring charts, it took him just seven minutes to claim the golden boot for a second successive season. Falcao's match-winner for Porto in last year's final was a textbook header, but there was nothing ordinary about the opener in Bucharest as he cut inside on his left foot after a marauding run and curled the ball exquisitely beyond the grasp of Gorka Iraizoz.

"I had good space, a good angle to shoot," Falcao recalled after entering the press conference carrying the impressive 15kg trophy he helped win. "My dad always used to tell me that I should try to aim for the far post and that's what I tried to do. I think he's going to be very happy." A second goal followed and, though not as spectacular as the first, it still required a nimble piece of footwork on the six-yard line to create space for a rifled finish that put Atletico 2-0 up at the interval.

Athletic created chances in the second half as Bielsa threw caution to the wind, bringing on Ibai Gomez, Inigo Perez and Gaizka Toquero, but the closest they came was when Markel Susaeta saw his shot superbly saved by Thibaut Courtois, another highlight of his fantastic campaign on loan from Chelsea. Forcing a save was, unfortunately for Athletic, more than Fernando Llorente could muster, as he endured a difficult evening in which opportunities were at a premium.

While Llorente laboured in Bucharest, Falcao flourished and, if Atletico are to build on this success and assert themselves as a major European force, it is key for them to hold on to the Colombian and on-loan Wolfsburg midfielder Diego, who was instrumental again in the centre of the park. Simeone claimed after the game that there was "no ceiling to Falcao's ambition", but another Europa League title may at least keep the roof temporarily over his head.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Falcao. Perhaps an obvious choice, but he thrived on the big stage again. Now level in second in the all-time UEFA Cup/Europa League scoring charts with Dietmar Muller after netting 29 goals, Henrik Larsson's record tally of 31 is easily within touching distance. However, Falcao should not be striving for that total next season as he deserves to be playing in the Champions League, whether with Atletico or another club.

ATLETICO VERDICT: Atleti demonstrated the transient nature of modern football by starting with a grand total of zero players who were involved in the 2010 final, but Simeone's game-plan was executed to perfection to ensure the Europa League trophy went in the same direction as the spaces left open by Athletic were exploited to devastating effect. His players can now look ahead to a crunch La Liga encounter with Villarreal this weekend, when a place in the Champions League is at stake.

ATHLETIC VERDICT: Their style both impresses and frustrates in equal measure. Bielsa has done an incredible job but Athletic they need to show less naivety against sides devoted to counter-atttack. That seven of the starting line-up and 11 of the 18-man squad emerged from the club's youth system is an indication that their emphasis on developing Basque talent has the potential to provide silverware in the future, rather than just cultural pride.

NO SILVER LINING: Athletic players were understandably devastated at the final whistle and there were tears aplenty out on the pitch. After the game, the club's press officer came out with a handful of silver medals in her hand, confirming the belief that, for most professionals, losing a final is worse than not getting there at all.

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