Fernando Llorente will hold the key for Spanish side Athletic Bilbao when they meet Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final on Wednesday.
While much of the focus this season has been on Barcelona and Real Madrid’s utter dominance of La Liga, both Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao (10th in La Liga) and Diego Simeone’s Atletico (fifth) have the chance to savour their own taste of European glory at the National Arena in Bucharest.
Athletic, who only field players from the Basque region, have impressed under eccentric Argentine Bielsa this season with their fluid possession-based style likened to that of Barcelona’s.
Key to their set-up is Llorente, who has netted 17 goals in La Liga, 10 of which have come from headers, and he has a further seven in the Europa League.
That could be the key given Atletico have struggled to deal with set pieces at times this season, most recently against Valencia in their semi-final where two goals came from corners.
Simeone knows of Bilbao’s threat at breaking forward and said that would be an area of focus for his side.
“Bilbao are a team who like to go forward, who play very well and they have proved throughout the season they are a very competitive side,” Simeone said.
“Their strength lies in how quickly they look to move the ball once they have regained possession, and their focal point is Llorente.
“We will have to be very careful to deny them spaces.”
Simeone knows Bielsa well having played the latter stages of his international career with Argentina under him from 1998-2004.
“The sides are very evenly matched. I haven’t spoken to Bielsa but I have a great admiration for him,” Simeone admitted during the week.
Atletico’s Colombian striker Radamel Falcao will pose a similar threat as Llorente and has had no trouble adjusting to La Liga after his off-season switch from Porto, for whom he scored the winner in last year’s Europe League final.
After being bought for a club record 40 million euros to replace the departing Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, Falcao has not disappointed bagging 23 goals in La Liga to trail only Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo, as well 10 in the Europa League.
Simeone is likely to make one enforced change with Gabi set to replace the suspended Tiago, who was sent off in the second leg against Valencia, alongside Mario Suarez in central midfield.
Bilbao have never won a European trophy, their only previous final coming in 1977 when they lost the UEFA Cup to Juventus, and Bielsa feel their time has now come.
“Throughout every game, regardless of their importance, I haven’t seen a problem with confidence or anxiety yet that the team were not able to resolve themselves,” Bielsa said.