The third biggest club in Spanish football, behind the obvious duo of Real Madrid and Barcelona, clinched its first piece of European silverware since 1962 on Wednesday night. Whilst Atletico Madrid has not finished in the La Liga’s top three since 1996, when it won the league and cup in a splendid double-winning season, the narrow victory in Hamburg against a plucky Fulham side has helped ease the years of pain for Real Madrid’s underachieving city rival, long known for being able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (i.e. squandering brilliant winning positions and ultimately pressing the self-destruct button).
With the club’s last European final appearance way back in 1974, it is no wonder that a popular recent Spanish television advert had a young boy ask his father, presumably, why the family are Atletico Madrid fans. This week, in the aftermath of the club’s Europa League victory, the advert was updated in Marca, with the Madrid newspaper stating ‘Papa, now I know why were are Atleti fans!”. In much the same way that most of England was supporting Fulham, a lot of affection, barring Real Madrid fans, was shown towards the perennial underachievers. However, while Atleti’s fans have long suffered in the shadows of the team in white, this season presents the rarest of opportunities – Atletico Madrid, should it win the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, will end the season with two trophies. This is likely to be two more than Real Madrid, who trail Barcelona by one point with one game remaining. That said, the cups will be a welcome distraction for Quique Sanchez Flores’ side, which is not going to finish above ninth this year after a dismal start. Hopes of consolidating its Champions League position that it earned last year were dashed very early on, ultimately leading to the dismissal of former manager Abel Resino. While Flores has helped improve fortunes for a side mired in the bottom half of the table when he took over, the fact is that Atleti has only won two games in Europe this season (three if you count the final, though it was after 90 minutes). The reason why the side managed to proceed through the Europa League was mainly down to a large slice of luck and the ability to eke out away goals victories.
Fulham had an excellent run in the competition. Roy Hodgson should be commended for a marvellous job he has done with modest resources. He has truly worked wonders with what he has had at his disposal. The transformation of the formerly ridiculed Bobby Zamora into a player with genuine goalscoring prowess typifies Hodgson’s man-management ability. However, having played 63 games, the Cottagers looked shattered, which ultimately allowed a strike-duo of genuine world-class ability to claim victory. Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero and Diego Forlan have been the spearheads of Atleti’s feared attack for the last couple of seasons now. Fulham, recognising their threat, attempted to isolate them. When this occurred, the London club was very much in the game. However, for all of Zoltan Gera’s industry and Zamora’s valiant efforts while playing with an injury, the threat posed by Aguero and Forlan always had Fulham worried. The star-duo played their role in both of Atleti’s goals. Aguero fired in a scuffed volley that was pounced upon by Forlan who steered home to give his side the lead. After Simon Davies’ excellently taken equaliser, the game was pushed into extra-time. With tired legs and minds evident in both teams, Maradona’s son-in-law went on a lung-bursting run down the Fulham left, centring the ball to his Uruguayan team mate, who had made a sharp dart towards the front post that left his marker trailing. Forlan’s effort caught a deflection, but one cannot deny the quality of his movement. This for a player who was very much the pauper at Manchester United – there is no doubt that he has become the prince of Spanish football with a goalscoring record as good as any in Europe over the last few years. In these two crucial moments, both South Americans showed their strengths. Aguero’s low centre of gravity and ability to run at defences makes him a slippery operator and an excellent link man for Forlan, who is a predator in front of goal when it matters most – braces in the semi-final and final underline this.
Antonio Lopez lifting the Europa League has led to calls for Atletico Madrid to push on and capitalise on its first taste of success in a long time, with the dual aim of claiming back its position in Spain’s top four and Champions League positions and ultimately to try and break the duopoly at the top of the league. However, after winning the title in 1996, the club’s malaise set in. This begs the question – does winning the Europa League really help Atletico in its quest for greatness? Could lightning strike twice? In trying to get into Spain’s top four, the club has spent massively, racking up reported debts of €300m. While Europa League qualification is secure, the failure to maintain last year’s fourth position might not help the club bring in the money it needs. President Enrique Cerezo was able to fight off bids for Forlan and Aguero, probably because he could offer them the chance to play in Europe’s top competition. This time around, with financial constraints of chief concern, a large bid for either or both might see the break-up of arguably Europe’s finest strike pairing.
However, every cloud has a silver lining. Remember club captain and idol Fernando Torres. He left Madrid for Liverpool, mainly because his hometown club could not match his ambition of success. Since his departure in 2007, Liverpool has won nothing. Atletico has since kicked on and finished in the top four twice, won the Europa League and might win the Copa del Rey.
The Europa League has provided some excellent entertainment and showcased the skills of many of Europe’s finest players. I now pick my team of the tournament.
David de Gea (Atletico Madrid) – I have to pick this guy because he has burst on to the scene in a huge way. Only 19, he has managed to dislodge summer signing Sergio Asjeno from the starting eleven and has been called into Spain’s 30 man preliminary World Cup squad. While it is unlikely that he will make the final 23, it is a testament to his abilities, which he showed in the final, making crucial saves to keep his side in the game.
Brede Hangeland (Fulham) – The rock-solid Norwegian, along with Aaron Hughes, formed a sturdy defence in front of Mark Schwarzer that helped his side progress to the final after excellent defensive displays on the road, most notably in the semi-final against Hamburg.
David Luiz (Benfica) – The Brazilian will surely be on his way from Portugal to one of Europe’s big-hitters after an excellent showing in the competition. I am sure Dunga will have watched the centre-back’s performances both in Europe and domestically, where he has helped his side win the title.
Alvaro Dominguez (Atletico Madrid) – Much like de Gea, Dominguez has established himself in Atleti’s defence despite his young age. While the club has spent big in the past, his emergence shows that it can also produce high-quality players too.
Jonathon Legear (Anderlecht) – Six goals and three assists in eight appearances underlines this young Belgian as a player to keep an eye on. His dead-ball prowess will make him a highly sought after midfielder in the near future.
David Jarolim (Hamburg) – The experienced Czech holding midfielder did his job with minimal fuss. His passing was excellent and his reading of the game and defensive work was awesome.
Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool) – In a shocking season for the Reds, the Israeli’s typically fleet-footed performances have been a small consolation. With Gerrard and Torres struggling for form and fitness, Benayoun has shown that, despite a lack of playing time, he can have an immediate impact.
Angel di Maria (Benfica) – The roving left-winger has caused all sorts of problems for teams everywhere this season. He will start for Argentina this summer and his link up with Juan Sebastian Veron, where the latter searches for the winger with a searching diagonal pass, is likely to be a key ploy for Maradona’s men. Di Maria would improve pretty much any side in Europe and could be a real star this summer. I would not be surprised if he moved on after the tournament.
Mesut Ozil (Werder Bremen) – The German side lost Brazilian playmaker Diego to Juventus last summer. This has allowed this young midfielder to step up and be the team’s creative force and he has not disappointed with six assists. While Claudio Pizarro scored nine goals in the tournament, Ozil was the one behind the majority of them. A player to watch in the World Cup for fans and managers alike.
Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid) – Describing the Uruguayan as world-class must have been unimaginable while he was at Manchester United, but the truth of the matter is that he has earned that billing. He has strengthened his reputation with crucial goals against Liverpool and Fulham. Under Flores’ stewardship, he has rediscovered his devastating best form.
Bobby Zamora (Fulham) – Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Wolfsburg all suffered at the hands of the English striker. Heartbreaking for the player that a late season injury ended his chances of representing his country in the summer, but this should be a personal victory for a striker who was ridiculed by most. Now he is a striker that no manager in Europe would want to face.