At the beginning of this season way back last summer, if someone had asked you which two Spanish La Liga teams would likely bring home some silverware from Europe, you probably would have had no hesitation saying, "Real Madrid or Barcelona."
Who would have thought that neither perennial power is in the running and two unlikely clubs are still alive and kicking in the Europa League final on Wednesday -- Atético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao?
Real and Barca fell short in their quest for more Euro glory in the UEFA Champions League semifinals.
On Wednesday, however, two Spanish rivals who are hungry for trophies and rewards will square off at the National Arena in Bucharest, Romania (GolTV, 7 p.m., tape delay).
Those two teams do not inhabit anywhere near the orbits of the two aforementioned powerhouses this season. In fact, they have rather pedestrian records, so a chance at European glory is a big, big deal. Atético Madrid, also known as Los Rojiblancos, are in fifth place in La Liga with a 14-12-11 record, while Los Leones are four rungs down the ladder in ninth place with a mediocre 12-12-13 mark.
So, it is a rare opportunity to parade around with a European trophy as they have exactly three European championships of any kind between them. That's three for Atético Madrid (2009-10 Europa League, 1961-62 Cup Winners Cup, 2010 UEFA Super Cup) and none for Athletic Bilbao, although it finished second in the 1976-77 UEFA Cup.
"If a club like this has never won a European trophy and they have a chance now, that could be a great memory to cherish for eternity," Athletic Bilbao midfielder Javi Martínez was quoted by UEFA.com. "We need to be aware of that, so that we regard this final as something historic."
The clubs have at least one thing in common. They are directed by foreign coaches -- two Argentines, in fact. Former Argentine and Chile national coach Marcelo Bielsa makes the hard decisions for Athletic Bilbao. Likewise for Atético Madrid coach Diego Simeone, a former Argentine international who might best known for drawing David Beckham into a red card at the 1998 World Cup.
But the coaches are quite familiar with each other, as Simeone played for Bielsa over four years, reaching a then-record Argentine 106th cap at the 2002 World Cup.
"I'm very happy about going up against a Spanish team, it speaks volumes about Spanish football, and I'm even happier that two Argentine coaches will meet in a European final," Simeone told reporters. "Knowing each other gives us both an advantage, but a final is a final. Both teams have the same chance of winning. I haven't spoken to Bielsa but I hold great admiration for him."
Bielsa is considered to have one of the great tactical soccer minds in the world, although his dealings with human beings can be considered -- well, unusual. He has a reputation of not looking at the person with whom he is talking.
Simeone, on the other hand, is a lot more personable. After taking over the Atético reins for Gregorio Manzano after the team fell to 10th place in December, Simeone is trying to become only the third person to win the Cup as a player and a coach, winning with Inter Milan in 1998.
"Perhaps I'm more level-headed [as a coach]," he told UEFA.com. "As a player, you can be more spontaneous and instinctive, but now as a coach I have to find a psychological balance within the team. If you look at the situation at the moment, then it's the same. There is happiness, responsibility. It's very emotional, but the player plays and the coach doesn't. The coach thinks a lot more and lives '25 hours a day' – 24 hours, thinking about Atlético all the time."
These two rivals have played one another since 1921, when they tangled in Copa del Rey final. Athletic grabbed a 2-1 victory. The next time they met was in 1975 as Atético won. Their most recent cup confrontation was in 1985, when Mexican international Hugo Sanchez had a brace for the Madrid side in a 2-1 win at Santiago Bernabeu.
In La Liga encounters, Atético holds a slight edge with a 64-59-27 record.
If you're wondering about their most recent match-ups, well, Atético owns a slight edge 1t 10-9-3 since the turn of the century. More recently, Athletic Bilbao, behind Fernando Llorente's two goals, earned a 3-0 home triumph on Oct. 27, while Atético squeezed out a 2-1 home win as Colombian international Ramadel Falcao recorded a brace on March 21.
So, if things go according to form, it should be a close battle.
"We'll need to be compact and fast, and more focused than in a league match," Simeone said. "To face another Spanish club, having played each other before in the league, also means that we know each other very well on many levels. And the best thing about facing a Spanish club is that this is very important for Spanish football."
There are plenty of story lines for both teams.
For Madrid, two players on loan -- goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) and Diego (VfL Wolfsburg) -- will play in their final match for the team. They have made vital contributions to the team during its cup run.
Courtois, a Belgian international, has backstopped the team in 13 matches, has recorded seven shutouts in the competition. He is only 19 (he turns 20 on Friday), which is young for a goalkeeper in a position that is dominated by experienced hands, literally and figuratively.
"I have improved in every sense: in terms of my playing skills, the way I kick the ball," he told UEFA.com. "I have to continue developing everything, though – I'm only 19 and at this age you can still improve in every department."
Diego, who has assisted on six goals in the cup, will get an opportunity to play in a final. The Brazilian was suspended for the UEFA Cup final three years ago when SV Werder Bremen lost to FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
"Finals are special because you don't play them often in your career," Diego was quoted by UEFA.com. "You need to enjoy moments like these; it's a pleasure playing a match like this. It's a privilege and I hope to win it. That is the most important thing."
For Athletic Bilbao, there is versatile midfielder Oscar de Marcos, a 22-year-old who has exhibited a work rate second to none while playing and playing well wherever he has been called on to perform -- on the wings or in central midfield. He has scored four times in the Europa League.
Bilbao's top scorer is Llorente, a Spaniard nicknamed El Rey León, who has scored seven goals in 13 cup appearances despite battling hip and knee injuries.
Madrid's No. 1 marksman is Falcao, a 26-year-old who has struck 23 times in 31 La Liga encounters and another 10 times in 14 cup matches, good enough to be tied for the scoring lead with Schalke 04 forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Listen, the Europa League is nowhere near the stature of the UEFA Champions League, which will be decided between Chelsea and Bayern Munich on May 19. The competition, the renamed UEFA Cup, essentially is the National Invitation Tournament of soccer, teams that were not good enough to compete for the big prize.
But these days, any prize or trophy is better than none.
Many teams would love to be where Atético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will stand on Wednesday -- at the National Arena pitch -- as they try to achieve some rare European glory.
Michael Lewis, who has covered international soccer for more than three decades, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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