Depending on the results of the final round in La Liga this upcoming weekend, Atlético Madrid can finish as high as ninth and as low as eleventh in Spain. Fulham completed their 2009-10 in the Barclays Premier League in twelfth position. All mattered not as they both navigated through massive European obstacles to arrive at the HSH Nordbank Arena in Hamburg on Wednesday evening to compete for the inaugural UEFA Europa League final, the newly reorganized UEFA Cup.
At the dawn of this season, Atlético Madrid held high aspirations domestically and internationally. Los colchoneros qualified for the UEFA Champions League the past two seasons on the final matchday, holding off Sevilla in 2008 and Villarreal in 2009 to finish both years fourth in the league. In addition, Atlético progressed easily through the Champions League group stage the previous campaign and lost on away goals to FC Porto in the first knockout round, so they expected to get at least that far if not farther.
Mediocre in the league and underwhelming in this year’s Champions League group stage, and Atlético struggled to achieve a draw against Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia in the final group stage match just to receive the parachute to the Round of 32 in the Europa League.
Sergio Asenjo, their twenty-year-old goalkeeper of the future whom they bought from Real Valladolid for €6 million, struggled mightily and eventually sat on the bench in favor of nineteen-year-old David de Gea.
The team coped with unrest in the coaching ranks as Abel Resino was sacked in late October following Atlético’s horrendous start in favor of Quique Sánchez Flores. Sánchez Flores could relate to Resino’s position, as he was also fired after a poor beginning to the 2007-08 season by Valencia after he guided Los Che to consecutive Champions League appearances. Valencia would regret that decision because they chose Ronald Koeman as Quique’s successor, and coupled with Valencia’s growing financial problems, the Koeman era turned into an unmitigated disaster.
Realizing that any potential accomplishment in La Liga would be a fruitless endeavor, Atlético Madrid started to focus on cup competitions to salvage any sort of pride in this season. This change in priority and the new influence of Quique Sánchez Flores heightened the waning confidence and play of the squad members.
Despite this expected rise in form, Atlético president Enrique Cerezo Torres and the Atlético technical staff must have shaken their heads and pulled out their hair numerous times because of their team’s schizophrenic personality. Inexplicably pathetic matches against lower table teams such as Tenerife, Almería, and Real Zaragoza would follow inspirational performances against Sevilla, Barcelona, and Valencia. Playing to the competition is usually portrayed as a pejorative because it implies that the team takes inferior opposition for granted while gearing up for tougher clubs, but in this particular case, for some strange reason, Atlético Madrid effectively employed this policy.
On their path to the Copa del Rey final, they encountered only one La Liga team, Racing Santander, and only in this tie did Atlético perform up to their capabilities in the first leg, dismissing the Cantabrians 4-0 to render the second leg virtually meaningless.
With the quality of teams they opposed in the Europa League, however, they could not help but play at a high level since their adversaries were such accomplished teams.
Galatasaray, Sporting Clube de Portugal, Valencia, and Liverpool. Winners of fourteen different European trophies. In recent years, facing these types of teams in succession would occur in the Champions League knockout stages. not the UEFA Cup/Europa League, but they did not faze the men from the capital. As many have pointed out, Atlético Madrid did not win a single match in the Champions League group stage, and they only won two matches out of eight in the Europa League knockout stage on their way to the final. Cup competitions, however, comprise of a completely different mentality and strategy than league play, and in all four knockout ties, it would be hard to argue that Atlético Madrid was not the better team over two legs in each tie.
Rarely does any team convincingly win every round, and Atlético was no exception. They advance on three separate occasions on the away goals rule, and in the semifinal, it took extra time to settle the tie. In the final against Fulham, in a match destined for penalties, Atlético scored what proved to be the cup-winning goal in the 116th minute, the 26th minute of extra time. Three different times during their run to the Europa League crown, Atlético needed a late goal in the 90th minute and beyond. There was only one man that scored all three: the indomitable Diego Forlán.
Notoriously nicknamed “Diego Forlorn” for his goal-scoring inadequacies at Manchester United, Diego Forlán worked tirelessly to shake this reputation when he made his move from Manchester United to Villarreal in 2004. Three successful seasons at Villarreal substantiated the talent that United saw in him when they signed him from Independiente in 2003, including the Pichichi trophy (top goal-scorer in La Liga) in 2005 and a semifinal run in the 2005-06 Champions League where they topped their group while Manchester United finished last in that same group.
Forlán, always the humble and consummate professional, never said a venomous word about his former employers, especially when Villarreal and Manchester United played twice in the group stage. He actually praised Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United fans for their support during his two season stay despite his difficulties, but deep in his heart, he must have felt a little glee about preventing United from proceeding to the knockout stage.
When Fernando Torres moved to Liverpool for a club record £26.5 million in the summer of 2007, Atlético Madrid used some of that money to buy Forlán for €21 million from Villarreal. 86 goals in 153 appearances in all competitions for Atlético demonstrated further his status as a world-class striker, but his match-winning exploits in this season’s Europa League enhances his standing as not just a goal-scorer but also as a forward who scores the most important goals.
In the 90th minute of the second leg against Galatasaray at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium in Istanbul, appropriately nicknamed “Hell” because of its intimidating atmosphere, Forlán clinched the tie that was a couple of minutes away from extra time. Quique Sánchez Flores did not include him in the starting eleven against Galatasaray, and he only came in after Sergio Agüero suffered a facial injury near the end of the first half. No complaints or attitude came from Forlán, and he scored the ticket into the Round of 16.
Against Liverpool in the second leg of the semifinal at Anfield, Forlán stuck the lance in Liverpool’s side again with an extra-time winner in the 102nd minute that scrapped any semblance of a successful season for Liverpool. One of Forlán’s few positive achievements at Manchester United was a two-goal effort at Anfield to defeat Liverpool 1-2, and the Manchester United faithful still laud that accomplishment, and as the chant goes, “He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry.” If Manchester United were not to win a European trophy, it was imperative for United fans that Liverpool did not win either, and the former United man was more than willing to haunt Liverpool yet again.
In the final against Fulham, the pre-game ceremonies contained more action than the first thirty minutes of the match because both teams showed their fraying nerves about competing in a European final. Only three players from both teams’ starting elevens had competed in a showcase final of European club football, José Antonio Reyes with Arsenal, Mark Schwarzer for Middlesbrough, and Danny Murphy with Liverpool. Elementary errors from both sides littered the opening stages of the match, and an errant pass by Paul Konchesky ultimately led to Atlético’s first goal that was scored by none other than Diego Forlán in the 32nd minute.
The goal came from a quick counter-attack, and it started with Reyes rampaging down the right flank and passing it into the center for Simão Sabrosa who purposefully made a lung-bursting run down the center of the pitch. Simão then passed it first-time in the air to Agüero at the D; Agüero headed it down and took the shot off the volley, but he completely mishit it. Luckily, it went into Forlán’s direction, and Forlán directed it to the left far post past a helpless Schwarzer. It was debatable whether Forlán was offside, but Forlán’s positioning saved Agüero’s shot from rolling harmlessly wide and ascended Atlético in the lead.
After Simon Davies’ clinical volley five minutes late equalized the score at 1-1, balance reigned the rest of regulation, and extra time loomed in Hamburg.
Five minutes away from penalty kicks, Fulham looked tired and played for penalties. Fulham’s journey to the Europa League final began on July 30 in the third qualifying round in Lithuania against FK Vètra, and sixty-three matches later and 115 minutes into the final where they left every last part of their energy on the pitch, no one would question them if they wanted to go into penalties. Diego Forlán, however, prevented the lottery of penalty kicks with the cup-winning goal in the 116th minute.
Kun Agüero did most of the work on the left flank, making one last oxygen-inducing run to keep Antonio López lead pass from crossing the end line for a goal kick. One-on-one with Fulham central defender Aaron Hughes, Agüero’s cross at the six-yard box was back flicked by Forlán, and it took a slight deflection off Brede Hangeland and into the back of the net.
A last flurry from Fulham in the second minute of stoppage time went for naught, and Atlético Madrid won its first European trophy in forty-eight years when they won the 1961-62 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Amidst the immediate joy once referee Nicola Rizzoli whistled for fulltime, Diego Forlán merely raised his arms in the air and instantly went to hug and shake the hands of his opponents, specifically Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes. He could have ran to the center circle and celebrated with his teammates, and no one would have blamed him, but the class that he carries at all times signals the kind of man and player that young player should strive to emulate.
This column would be remiss not to laud Fulham FC for its fairy-tale run from near relegation from the Football League in 1996 to seventh in the Premier League last season to a European final this season. Roy Hodgson deservedly received the LMA Manager of the Year, voted on by his fellow managers in the Football League, and no one will ever forget their run to the final, toppling European powers Shakhtar Donetsk, Hamburg, and Juventus.
The night, however, belongs to Atlético Madrid. If one said that a Spanish and an English team would meet in a European final, and the team from Madrid won, probably the last answer purported would be Atlético Madrid defeating Fulham in the Europa League final. For a few days and months, Atlético own the city of Madrid over their eternal rivals Real, and if Atlético complete the cup double with a win over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey next Wednesday, they will have accomplished one of the unique coups in Spanish football history. What other team than Atlético Madrid to complete such a bipolar season: average in league, perfect in cup.