Evening. So often the subject of derision and scorn, even Larry David would have to admit this season's Europa League has been pretty, pretty, prettaaaaaaayyyyyy, pretteh good. Teams have both swashed and buckled, English pretensions about the strength and depth of the Premier League have been blown out of the water, Tony Pulis has shown himself up to be an ambition-free bore by forfeiting against Valencia and although the 743 matches in the group stages dragged on a tad, we now have a hugely enticing all-Spanish final to sit back and enjoy this evening. Thursday nights on Channel Five haven't been the graveyard many predicted and not even Traffic Cops at 8pm on BBC1 should be an excuse for not watching this. Sure, it's actually Wednesday night on Channel Five and it's not The El Clasico, but we're all tired of that by now anyway and in any case, this has all the potential to be a mini-clasico.
If teams are embodiments of their managers, then perhaps no two currently exemplify this more pertinently than Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid. Bilbao, just like their absurd but inspired manager Marcelo Bielsa, are manic, feverish, obsessed with attack and play like they inject sugar into their veins on the hour, every hour. But Atletico, managed by
David Beckham's old mate Diego Simeone, are tough, uncompromising and intense, but also talented and skillful. Bilbao have captured a continent's imagination with their all-out attacking style and most neutrals will be backing the Basques. Yet this is far from a foregone conclusion, for Atletico have also been exemplary in this year's tournament, and were excellent against another Spanish side, Valencia, in the last four. They are fifth in La Liga to Bilbao's 9th, and have experience of winning this competition against Mr Roy's Fulham two years ago (although this is a much more impressive Atletico side). As does Simeone, who won it as a player with Inter in 1998.
Bilbao are also in the final of the Copa del Rey - Bilbao v Barcelona, Bielsa v Guardiola, master v pupil - and are on the verge of an unprecedented double. They have never won a European competition in their history. But even if they end up with nothing, in their own way they will have given us everything, reminding us why we adore football in the first place: league position be damned when there's glory to be grasped, fun to be had and entertainment to be provided. Whatever the outcome, it's the sort of occasion which has you genuinely hoping that football is the winner you guys.
Atletico Madrid: Courtois; Juanfran, Godin, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Mario Suarez, Gabi; Diego, Adrian, Turan; Falcao. Subs: Sergio Asenjo, Antonio Lopez, Salvio, Paulo Assuncao, Koke, Dominguez, Martin.
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; Iraola, Javi Martinez, Amorebieta,
Aurtenetxe; De Marcos, Iturraspe; Muniain, Ander Herrera, Susaeta,
Llorente. Subs: Raul, Toquero, San Jose, Gabilondo, Inigo Perez, Ekiza, Ibai.
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Germany)
Kick off: 6.45pm.
Gheorghe Hagi is being interviewed. The Maradona of the Carpathians. Enjoy.
Not only do Atletico have a manager who won the
Europa League Uefa Cup as a player, they also have a player who scored the winner in last year's final. Albeit for Porto against Braga. Step forward the deadly Falcao. This could be a battle between the Colombian and Fernando Llorente. "Nice build up," says Luke Crane. "Now let's have a nil-nil draw."
The atmosphere inside the stadium looks superb. The camera has been showing thousands of red and white scarves being waved at a fair old pelt.
The teams are in the tunnel. Some very silly and pointless ceremony is taking place on the pitch. Athletic Bilbao, as the away side will be wearing green rather than their red and white stripes. Atletico get to wear theirs though.
Out they come. No one dares touch the trophy as they walk past it. "The devilish Falcao against the uninhibitedly handsome Llorente," says Gabriel Deleon, who has dubbed this The Battle of the Hunks. "Personally I'm hoping Llorente & co seal the win for this photo alone."
Off we go, Bilbao, kicking from right to left, getting us underway. The noise is ear-splitting. Martinez hits it long straight to Llorente immediately. That's right. Get it in the mixer. Hit the channels. It's a feverish start from both sides, who are snapping into challenges as if their lives depended on it.
2 min: What an atmosphere. Piercing whistles from the Bilbao fans reverberate around the stadium as Arda Turan dashes down the left flank and then whips a cross into the middle where Adrian gets ahead of his marker at the near post and heads well wide of the far post. It's been a nervy start from Bilbao.
3 min: Bilbao are struggling to play their way out of their own half at the moment, such has been the intensity of the Atletico pressing. "I have just discovered the disheartening news that the station here in the U.S that shows the Europa League games has inexplicably decided to not show the final live but instead will show it four hours later," says JR in Illinois. "I must be one of at least dozens of people furious about this turn of events. The question is: do I follow along with what i'm sure will be a pulsating MBM or do I shut off all media and wait until they show it here?" Well you already know how the first three minutes went and if you follow this, you'll take our readership up to a heady four.
5 min: Not much to report so far, both teams feeling each other out and unable to develop any rhythm goin yet.
GOAL! Atletico Madrid 1-0 Athletic Bilbao (Falcao, 7 min): On the touchline, Diego Simeone is urging his players to keep their cool, but that may be impossible in this din. Falcao has done it again. This is his competition. He was fed by a pass down the inside-right channel by Adrian and surged into the area, albeit with little in the way of support. No matter, because the Bilbao defence failed to get close enough to him and he just cut back on to his left foot and then curved a sublime shot into the top-left corner from 15 yards out. That was exquisite. Iraizoz had no chance. Bilbao haven't started yet.
9 min: It's not Atletico who need to keep their heads, it's Bilbao. They've been sloppy in possession so far, the nerves getting the better of this young side. Just before the goal, Diego had a shot blocked in the area after Adrian had hassled and harried Aurtenetxe on the right.
10 min: Athletic Bilbao appeal for a penalty as Diego Godin grapples with Fernando Llorente at a free-kick, putting his arms on the big striker for the briefest of moments. It wasn't enough to stop Llorente getting his head to the ball but his header went wide. The German referee waves away his appeals for a penalty. Seen them given. By Mike Dean.
12 min: So far, it's Atletico who have the look of a team who have been there and done it. Bilbao are playing the occasion and that's fatal. "Is there really a guy doing the 'Goooooooooooooooool' thing over the tannoy?" asks Philippa Booth. "Marvellous work." It's Gary Neville.
14 min: Marcelo Bielsa is crouched in the Andre Villas-Boas position. "I'm sure this is an obvious question and I could easily find the answer myself if I tried, but have these two played each other twice in La Liga already this season?" asks Robin Hazlehurst. "Logically they ought to have. And if so, what happened? Who has the head-to-head form going into this match? Err, and have Bilbao had to come from behind before?" Bilbao won 3-0 at home and lost 2-1 away.
15 min: For the first time, a glimpse of Bilbao's threat going forward. Herrara's cheeky backflick releases Muniain, who runs at the Atletico defence, only to delay the pass. When he does poke it through, it's hacked behind for a corner, which is dealt with easily enough. "Who would you rather have on your Premier League team, Falcao or Llorente?" asks Colin Sebastian. "The brilliant poaching which lead 72 club goals from Falcao in the past two years or the brute strength and power of Llorente's 48 club goals? I'd say Llorente based on Falcao's dodgy haircut." Probably Llorente. The man is a beast. I reckon he just about more to his overall game than Falcao, although the Colombian is remarkable. By the way, his goal made him the competition's top scorer. He has 11.
17 min: Susaeta flicks a cross into the box. There's no one there for Bilbao. Where's Andy Carroll when you need him?
18 min: Diego, revitalised at Atletico, drags a poor shot wide from long range.
19 min: This is much better from Bilbao. They're starting to work their neat little triangles, buying enough space for Herrera to whip a first-time cross into the box. Llorente gets ahead of Miranda, but the defender does just about enough to put him off and the Bilbao striker's miscued volley spins just wide. The game is then delayed due to a pitch invasion, giving everyone a much-needed break.
21 min: Bilbao are Barcelona-dominant in possession now. "FYI - Anyone who has DirecTV can watch the game live on ch. 481," says Brad Haag over in the US.
22 min: But Bilbao have been very sloppy in possession. Herrera's pass back goes straight to Falcao, who beats one defender, before being held up the next. He buys enough time for the cavalry to arrive, and eventually Herrera, eager to atone for his mistake, brings down Diego on the edge of the area. He's booked.
23 min: The dangerous Diego sees his free-kick deflected wide by Llorente, doing his job in the wall. Iraizoz catches Diego's harmless corner.
24 min: Muniain brings a sprawling save out of Courtois, down to his right, with a low, crisply hit shot from 25 yards out. This match will not stay at 1-0.
25 min: Susaeta breaks unnoticed into the area on the right, but his cutback is behind every Bilbao player. Atletico are living dangerously at times. Since the Falcao goal, Bielsa's men have been the better side.
26 min: Falcao is booked for a nasty rap on Iturraspe's calf.
28 min: A lull. Of sorts. Both sides are trying to press the other into errors whenever they have the ball, often deep in their own half. They must be knackered.
30 min: In the glamour game of the night, it's still Birmingham 0-0 Blackpool in the second leg of their Championship play-off semi-final. Blackpool lead 1-0 on aggregate.
31 min: De Marcos runs on to a knockdown from Martinez, but is unable to bundle his way past Miranda and Juanfran, so falls over instead in a rather flagrant attempt to win a penalty. The shocked expression on his face is fooling no one.
GOAL! Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao (Falcao, 34 min): This was like watching Andy Carroll in the FA Cup final, only on fast forward. Iraola was caught dawdling in possession on the edge of his own area, his pocket pinched as Atletico swarmed over him. The ball was prodded through to the left of the area for Arda Turan, who cut the ball back to the edge of the six-yard box. The Bilbao defence was thrown off balance, and Falcao made to pass it to his right for the better-placed Adrian, using him as a decoy. Instead he duped Martinez with a dazzling pirouette and then smashed the ball past Iraizoz. It's an uphill task for Athletic Bilbao now.
37 min: Bilbao need half time. I said before the match they play as if they're on a sugar high, but so far it's as if someone's spiked them with sleeping tablets. They've looked leggy and lethargic.
39 min: "This is thrilling stuff already and no one from Team GB in sight," says Simon McMahon. "Do you agree with me that the current Spanish league is the best ever in terms of quality, better even than Serie A in the days when Milan were in their pomp? As a comparison think about the teams in 5th and 9th position here at home. Could they match this? Hearts and Aberdeen? It's close, but I don't think so." No. Barcelona and Real Madrid are too far ahead of the rest to make it the best league ever.
41 min: Bilbao don't learn their lesson. They give the ball away again in their own half, and before they know it, Falcao is bearing down on Iraizoz again. However Aurtenetxe steams across to boot it clear and Falcao, on the follow-up, ends up stamping on Iraizoz's groin. A worrying moment for him, as he's already on a booking but the referee deems it to be accidental.
44 min: A corner for Atletico on the left. Iraizoz comes and gets nowhere near it, but as Godin heads on to the roof of the empty net, the referee blows for a foul.
45 min: Falco goes close to getting a hat-trick in the first half of a European final. He's sprung clear down the left by a lovely pass from Diego. This could be game over, but once he's stepped inside Iraola, he slices his shot over the bar, unable to bend it with his right foot as he did with his left for the opener.
45 min+1: Juanfran's slip on the edge of the area gives De Marcos a sight of goal, but his effort is deflected wide. That epitomises Atletico: strong, committed and willing to put their bodies on the line. Combine that with a striker like Falcao and you've got a good chance.
Half time: Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao. Falcao is the difference between the two sides, having scored two magnificent goals to put Atletico Madrid 45 minutes away from winning the Europa League. They have been excellent, but Athletic Bilbao have been overawed and overpowered.
Half time changes for Athletic Bilbao: Ibai and Inigo Perez are on for Iturraspe and Aurtenetxe. Bielsa could have viably replaced his entire team after that first half.
46 min: Off we go again! And this is more promising than anything Bilbao managed in the first half, as Muniain scoots down the right, and drives the ball into the six-yard box, forcing Miranda to divert it behind. Martinez heads Ibai's corner over.
47 min: The Bilbao supporters are making a rare old din, trying to encourage their team forward. "What to do?" says Andrew Morrissey. "A life long Atlético fan I am loving the result if not our niggly foul 'em and interrupt the flow tactics. But my future daughter in law is an Athletic supporter and her uncle has a vineyard in La Rioja. She will probably never speak to me again if Athletic miss out this time. Do i savor a second cup in two years (tempted) or side with future DiL to ensure a steady supply of the grapey nectar? What would you do." Booze. Always booze.
49 min: Turan swings a teasing cross into the sort of area that causes goalkeepers nightmares, as they're unsure whether to anticipate a glancing header or stay put, risking the delivery creeping into the far post. But Falcao can't reach the cross and in the end it bounces a few yards wide of the far post.
51 min: Bilbao are a shambles at the back. Perez completely misjudges a high ball towards the left of the area, but Diego reads its flight, takes it down on his chest beautifully and then stabs a rushed shot into the side-netting from a tight angle. It's hard to see a way back for Bilbao if this is how they're going to defend.
53 min: It remains bitty and too frenetic for Bilbao right now. Atletico aren't about to let their lead slip without a huge fight, and Bilbao don't look like they have it in them to muster the level required. They're being rushed into passes and they can't cope.
55 min: Atletico work eye-catching patterns around the Bilbao midfielders, before Gabi doesn't quite catch a shot cleanly enough from 25 yards out. An easy save for Iraizoz.
56 min: The singing has been non-stop for the entire match.
56 min: In the Championship play-off, it's Birmingham 0-2 Blackpool (0-3 on aggregate). Stephen Dobbie and Kevin Phillips have the goals for Blackpool, who will almost certainly play West Ham in the final on 19 May.
57 min: The tough side from Madrid are beating the tiki-taka artistes. What's new?
58 min: Ibai hoicks a corner deep to the far post, where Ander Herrera hoicks a dismal volley high into the Romanian sky. Dear me, that was dreadful. "Do you think there's much chance of getting more South American managers over in England, particularly in the Premier League (and not merely those who have played for English clubs in the past as with Gus Poyet if and when he gets a top flight job/ gets Brighton promoted)?" asks David Wall. "Were people dissuaded by what happened with Ardilles at Spurs (where he probably wasn't given enough time to build what would have been a thrilling system)?" I'm not sure the culture of English football has suited them until recently, but with the likes of Roberto Martinez - yes, I know he's Spanish - flourishing, we could see some tempted.
59 min: Courtois has to adjust quickly to tip over an overhit free-kick from Perez from 40 yards out. It was a cross, not a shot, but that may be the kind of lucky break Bilbao need.
60 min: A high ball drops to the feet of Llorente but his first touch is poor and he's swiftly crowded out by Godin. The difference between Llorente and Falcao has been huge tonight.
63 min: The final change for Athletic Bilbao: the disappointing Ander Herrera is replaced by Toquero, who's greeted by a huge roar as he races on.
64 min: Falcao turns away from Amorebieta like Andy Carroll making a fool out of John Terry last night. The defender brings him down but the referee correctly plays the advantage, with Atletico still on the attack. Adrian picks up the ball on the right side of the area and cuts back on to his left foot, but he is unable to emulate Falcao's first goal, his shot going wide of the far post.
66 min: "'14 min: Marcelo Bielsa is crouched in the Andre Villas-Boas position' - are you serious here?" asks Brian Thomas. "Bielsa is legendary, aside for being mad and wearing granny glasses, for this very crouch. He was famous for it very possibly before Villas-Boas was born. Google Image search 'Marcelo Bielsa'. I know, small line to jump all over but... come on, man! You're a football writer! Villas-Boas has had two jobs. Bielsa is a 56-year-old coaching legend. Maybe you're joking. I'm going to hope it was an ironic witticism. (I'm not Argentine or South American or anything.)" I despair, I really do. Hark at the Crouching Expert.
69 min: Plenty of pressure from Bilbao, but nothing remotely in the way of conviction about it. They're not making Atletico sweat over this lead at all.
70 min: A cross from the right just evades the straining Llorente. Miranda half-clears it only as far as Ibai, but his booming volley whizzes over the bar. That was their best chance of the second half. "I have a similar dilemma to Andrew Morrissey," says Simon McMahon. "Well not really, I offered Mrs McMahon a drink because I wanted one myself but she refused with it 'being midweek' and all that so now I am forced to drink alone and suffer disapproving looks. But I feel much better for it and wholeheartedly agree, Jacob, that the answer is always booze."
71 min: Birmingham have pulled a goal back and now trail Blackpool 3-1 on aggregate.
73 min: Another Bilbao chance goes begging. Suarez lost possession deep in his own half to Ibai, who somehow wriggled clear on the left byline like Andres Iniesta at his best. He drove it into the six-yard box which was beaten out by Courtois, but De Marcos wildly blazed the rebound over. That's a bad miss.
75 min: Perez brings down Adrian on the edge of the D, with the Atletico forward about to burst ominously into the area after a pulsating run. Perez is booked; Gabi's free-kick is a waste of time.
77 min: This one might well have been heading in from Susaeta, but his first-time volley, firmly hit and well controlled from the edge of the area, is deflected inches past the left post by Godin. The impressive Courtois punches the resulting corner away.
78 min: Arda Turan deftly steps past a Bilbao defender on the edge of the area, but his attempted chip is simple for Iraizoz to save.
79 min: A fantastic save from Courtois preserves Atletico's two-goal lead. A spell of pinball in the Atletico area eventually saw the ball spin to the unmarked Susaeta on the right side of the box. He looked poised to blast it past Courtois, but the goalkeeper spread himself and got in the way of the shot. He looks like a terrific prospect.
80 min: Up the other end, Falcao is denied his hat-trick by the post. Atletico broke at speed after that escape and, of course, they immediately looked for Falcao on the left. He embarrassed one defender, hared forward, stepped inside another but then saw his right-footed drive deflected on to the left post at the very last moment. What a cracking player.
82 min: With blood pouring down his fizzog, Arda Turan is ordered off the pitch to receive treatment. "Getting pretty interesting in the game to decide who will beat West Ham at Wembley don't you think?" says Simon McMahon. Indeed. Due to all the chances in this match I hadn't had a chance to tell you that it's Birmingham 2-2 Blackpool (2-3 agg). Birmingham had been 3-0 down on aggregate.
84 min: Every Bilbao cross seems to have found an Atletico head. Although this one from Toqeuro didn't. Instead it came to Ibai at the far post; he produced an a fresh-air shot. That sums it all up.
GOAL! Atletico Madrid 3-0 Athletic Bilbao (Diego, 85 min): Atletico Madrid have won the Europa League! That is game over and it's another lovely goal. The supreme Brazilian, Diego, runs very softly at the Bilbao defence and beats Amorebieta with subtlety and skill, a soft-shoe shuffle, rather than power. Having jinked through, he emphatically drills the ball into the bottom-right corner with his left foot. That's it. All over. Iker Muniain collapses in tears on the pitch and his emotions are shared by the Athletic Bilbao fans in the crowd.
87 min: Athletic Bilbao haven't performed tonight, but don't forget the joy they've provided in this tournament this season.
88 min: Adrian is replaced by Eduardo Salvio. On the touchline, a puzzled Marcelo Bielsa scratches his head. Diego Simeone is still hopping about, barking orders.
90 min: Diego gets a great ovation from the Atletico fans as he trots off to be replaced by Koke.
90 min+3: Ibai thunders a drive off the top of the bar from 25 yards out. Courtois was beaten. But there's to be no goal for Athletic Bilbao tonight. Arda is replaced by Dominguez.
Peep! Peep! Peep! Atletico Madrid have won the 2012 Europa League: And you can't say they didn't deserve it. They rose to the occasion against a talented Athletic Bilbao, for whom this was a match too far. They froze. Hopefully they'll be back, but we'll see. Tonight they had no answer for the preposterous Falco, whose belting double in the first half made it an uphill task for the Basque side. Diego, who got the third, was also marvellous. They all were and their no-nonsense, strong-armed approach demonstrated the influence of Diego Simeone, who gets a big bear-hug from Falcao as the final whistle blows. Thanks for reading. Bye.