It’s halfway through May which means we have arrived at cup final season. As the match days in Europe’s respective leagues wind down, we begin to get ready for some cup final fixtures. Not just domestically, but across Europe as well.
This week features the Europa League final, the little brother of the Champions League final. While it isn’t as hyped as the Champions League, the Europa League final does offer some fun matchups in recent fixtures. This year’s fixture features two teams with differing styles. It’s Atletico Madrid vs. Olympique Marseille who will clash in Lyon for the Europa League title and a spot in the Champions League next season. Let’s take a look at the two squads and what we can expect from both of them.
It has been an OK season for French club Olympique Marseille in terms of their Ligue 1 standing, and they have a chance to get some silverware which would certainly put an exclamation point on their season. In fact, Marseille still could finish as high as 2nd in Ligue 1 pending on how the results go on the final matchday this weekend. Currently Marseille are one point away from 3rd place Lyon and 3 points away from 2nd place Monaco. If Marseille are able to get three points against Amiens on the final day, along with some help, they could jump up in the standings. This could be huge for Marseille as 2nd in Ligue 1 is automatic Champions League qualification while 3rd means you have to go through the playoff stage first.
In terms of the Europa League, Marseille had a rough beginning as they narrowly escaped the group stages. Finishing second behind RB Salzburg, Marseille were able to advance to the round of 32 thanks to a draw on the final day with the table leaders. Combine that with a draw by Turkish club Konyaspor and Marseille were through. They were then able to dispatch both Braga and Athletic Bilbao in the knockout stages pretty easily, winning both legs. But against RB Leipzig, they faced some trouble when they suffered a 1-0 first leg defeat against the upstart German club. The second leg was a much different story as Marseille put five goals past Leipzig to walk away the victors on aggregate, 5-3. Again they faced a Red Bull team in the semi-final, this time being Salzburg. After a 2-0 victory in the first leg it looked like Marseille were in cruise control but two quick goals in Salzburg for the home team changed all that. The game then headed to extra time where some controversy took place. A shot by Marseille in the 116th minute was for sure a goal kick yet the referees ruled it to be a corner, claiming it to go off a Salzburg player despite replay showing otherwise. That led to a corner which was put home by Rolando and Marseille survived a poor performance on the road.
But anyways, on to the Europa League final, which should be the only thing on the minds of Rudi Garcia and his men. This will be a tough test for the French club as they face an Atletico Madrid team who are super compact defensively. Atletico won’t give Marseille any favors in this game and Garcia’s players will have to be on their games to break them down. In terms of Marseille’s attack, it mainly runs through the duo of Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet. Thauvin has had an amazing season, scoring 26 goals for Marseille in all competitions. Payet hasn’t been as lethal in front of goals as his teammate but he has been a key set up man for OM. He has recorded 24 assists in all competitions this season with 7 of them coming in the Europa League. If OM even want a chance of winning this game, they are going to need both Thauvin and Payet to step up. They are the main chance creators and everything run throughs them. Other than that, they aren’t a lot of the guys on the pitch who will be able to create their own chances. Against a brick wall of a defense like Atletico Madrid, Marseille are going to need to be super creative and pick their spots offensively. They can’t be overly aggressive and take dumb risks, otherwise they will be picked apart by Atletico’s counter attack.
It’s been an interesting year for Atleti. Like Manchester United, finishing second in one of Europe’s biggest football leagues is quite an achievement. But given the point gap and how Barcelona ran away with La Liga, it almost doesn’t feel like an accomplishment at all. But once again they have a chance to do something which has slipped through their hands twice before, winning a European cup trophy.
This will be Atletico’s fifth European final since 2009-10 and hopefully for them, it won’t end in heartbreak. While the Europa League trophy doesn’t hold the same bearing as a Champions League one, it's still a good ending to the season for an Atletico Madrid team who are seeing their prime players fade out of the limelight. We are seeing a new wave of Atletico players come through the ranks and play minutes for Diego Simeone’s squad as players like Juanfran, Gabi, and others will slowly be moved out. For sentiment sake, it would be nice to see a group who has gone through watching Real Madrid snatch the trophy from their hands twice to get to lift one after all they have been through.
With La Liga basically settled, this is all Atletico Madrid have to play for. They entered the Europa League in the round of 32 after crashing out in the Champions League group stage. Simeone’s squad suffered defeats against Chelsea, Roma, and even drew with last place Qarabag FC. It certainly was the group of death in the Champions League and Atletico Madrid just didn’t seem up to the task.
But things turned around in the Europa League thanks to some fortunate draws. They cruised past the likes of Lokomotiv Moscow and Kobenhavn before facing against Sporting. It was a shaky tie as Sporting pegged a goal back from Atletico to make it 2-1 in the second leg. But in typical Atletico fashion they bunkered down and finished it off. Then came the semi-final against Arsenal. It was a tough away leg at the Emirates thanks to an early red card. After nearly 50 minutes of Atletico resistance, Arsenal broke through with a goal and it felt as if Atletico were setting themselves up for a comeback in the second leg. But then came a huge slice of luck as a ball off the face of Laurent Koscielny landed right in front of Antoine Griezmann who slotted it into the top right corner. It gave Atletico their away goal and flipped the tie on its head. In the home leg, it was a typical Atletico Madrid game until a through ball send Diego Costa through and he didn’t miss. In what was Arsene Wenger’s final European game at Arsenal, Diego Simeone got the best of him as Atletico advanced to another final.
For Atletico, expect them to approach this the same way they have in finals before. Sit back and absorb pressure but aren’t afraid to counter attack. As typical with most French/Ligue 1 teams, Marseille’s back line is shaky. The likes of Griezmann and Costa could take advantage of it and strike on the counter attack. Gabi and company will be tasked with keeping Payet and Thauvin out of the danger areas. If they are able to that and stymie Marseille, then Griezmann and Costa can do work. In all honesty, those two are the only ones who pose and constant attacking threat for Atletico and if they don’t produce, neither do Atletico. But they’ve been so good it’s rarely been the case.
This game is going to produce very few chances and Atletico strike quickly but only to have Marseille square it all up right before halftime. Then either Costa or Griezmann are sent in via a ball by Koke or Saul, get past the Marseille defenders and fire it past Steve Mandanda for the second goal. It turns out to be the game winning goal for Atletico who then close up shop and see out the victory. Simeone and his group finally get to lift up their first European trophy in six years.
2-1 Atletico Madrid