Marcelo Bielsa paced, he squatted, he sat down, he shouted, he looked on pensively, but whatever he did his Athletic side rarely threatened to make an impression on an Atlético Madrid team coached by one of his former players, Diego Simeone. Whatever Athletic have brought to the Europa League this season – which is a lot – however much the neutral might have wanted another of their displays of relentless attacking, tonight they were well-beaten.
Two first-half goals from the Colombian forward Radamel Falcao won the game, allowing Atlético to spend the final hour or so sitting deep, coiled always for a breakaway. Just as important was the job done by Gabi and Mario Suárez, sitting deep in midfield and protecting the back four, preventing Athletic from ever achieving the fluency of which they are capable.
In the last 20 minutes Athletic began to generate the sort of pressure of which they are capable, but by then it was far too late: the game had begun to slip away from them as early as the seventh minute.
Falcao, who scored the only goal in last season's Europa League final as Porto beat Braga, received the ball halfway between the six- and 18-yard boxes. Fernando Amorebieta seemed to have checked him, but a stepover created a fraction of room that became significant as the defender slipped, giving Falcao just enough space to curl a superb finish into the top corner. He follows Frédi Kanouté, who achieved the feat in 2006 and 2007 for Sevilla, in scoring in consecutive Uefa Cup/Europa League finals.
Athletic have been showing signs of fatigue domestically and they never quite seemed to reach the same pitch of intensity that had so unsettled Manchester United and Schalke 04 in earlier rounds. For a quarter of an hour they were distinctly second best, almost as though they were inhibited playing opponents four places above them in the league. Gradually, though, they began to find their rhythm and – predictably – it was their two young wingers who looked like offering a way back into the game. First Markel Susaeta played a cross into Fernando Llorent but the striker mis-hit his volley just wide of the near post, then Iker Muniain, buzzing in from the left, forced Thibaut Courtois into an uncomfortable sprawling save low to his left with a 20-yard drive.
But this is not an Athletic that ever looks comfortable at the back – a criticism that has often dogged Marcelo Bielsa's sides. Every break seemed dangerous and Falcao clearly had the beating of Amorebieta. Others, being forced to stretch a foot behind them to control Arda Turan's 34th-minute cross, might simply have lashed a shot on the turn; Falcao, though, twisted back on to his left foot, leaving Amorebieta in a heap, and thumped in an inevitable finish – his 12th goal in 15 European matches this season.
The first match in the magnificent new national stadium was a Euro 2012 qualifier between Romania and France that soon descended into farce as the pitch cut up and players struggled to maintain their footing. Amorebieta at times seemed to be paying homage to that game, but nobody else seemed to have a problem; it was just that Falcao was far better than him.
Although the crowd was predominantly red-and-white, there was also a Romanian flavour, which these days in football terms tends to mean there is at least an undercurrent of discontent. There were chants against the domestic league's president Dumitru Dragomir and also a half-hearted two-man pitch invasion by Universitatea Craiova fans protesting at the expulsion of their club from the league.
On another night perhaps Athletic would have forced something late on. Shots were blocked, crosses flew across the face of goal and Courtois made an excellent block to thwart Susaeta. Athletic's vulnerability was always there, though, and Diego, given space to run, accelerated by Amorebieta to add a third. A few moments earlier only the post denied Falcao his hat-trick. Two years after their first European trophy, Atlético were well worth their second.