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Antoine Griezmann fires Atlético past Marseille to Europa League glory

Another success for Diego Simeone and Atlético, and another success for Spain in the Europa League. Eight of the past nine winners of European competitions have been Spanish – and Real Madrid could made it nine out of 10 in Kiev next week.

La Liga has also provided nine winners of the Europa League in the past 15 years and this was a third in nine seasons for Atlético, two of them under Simeone – although he was confined to the stands after he was sent from the touchline during the first leg of the semi-final against Arsenal.

It was not a final that will live long in the memory. Atlético played as they tend to at their best, holding their opponents at arm’s length, spoiling when they need to, and winning comfortably without really seeming to extend themselves. Marseille gifted them the first and were not without blame for the second, while the third was the result of a smart counter against weary opponents. The first two also involved ruthless finishes from Antoine Griezmann.

The boyhood Marseille fan is likely to leave Atlético for Barcelona in the summer, which perhaps leaves a bittersweet note, but Atlético are familiar enough by now with the selling-on reality.

There is much sniffiness about the Europa League but there is a sense in its later stages that it is what the European Cup used to be. These are big clubs but not superclubs, teams crafted through careful work in the transfer market rather than epic splurges every summer, teams for whom success is not a given, a privilege of rank, but must be scrapped for and is perhaps appreciated rather more as a result. And Atlético, as Rudi Garcia pointed out, are bigger than his Marseille side, far more experienced in major games.
“This season was a tough one,” said Simeone, “but this Europa League represents more than the Europa League trophy – it shows the value of hard work and persistence, or keeping at it and working hard. We lost two Champions League finals [in the recent past]. We didn’t start the Champions League very well [this time] but reinvented ourselves in this competition. All that hard work will bear fruit in the end.”

And let nobody suggest to Marseille fans the Europa League does not matter. In the stands, their white shirts outnumbered the red-and-white of Atlético by around three to one. They were noisy and raucous and before a kick-off delayed by the overrunning of the pre-match entertainment, set off dozens of red flares, swaddling the arena in thick smoke that lingered for most of the game – certainly for longer than Marseille’s hope of success. Valère Germain missed a great early chance after being slipped in by Dimitri Payet but after that Atlético were rarely threatened.

With German Burgos, promoted to a starring role because of Simeone’s touchline ban, glowering from the edge of the technical area, Atlético slowly squeezed the life out of Marseille. Burgos is also a former Atlético goalkeeper and, like Simeone, seems to embody the club’s self-image. He ended his first Madrid derby spattered with blood after saving a Luis Figo penalty with his nose, and was the front man for a rock band called The Garb. In 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer but survived.

A mulleted, bearded barrel of a man, he paced back and forth with an oddly lethargic gait, pointing and shrugging, hands flicking from his hips to sweep through his still lustrous dark hair. Vitally, his frustrated gesticulations got Atlético pressing high enough to disrupt Marseille as they sought to pass out from the back. That induced the opener as Steve Mandanda played an awkward ball to the holding midfielder André Zambo Anguissa who miscontrolled. With the two centre-backs split, Gabi could not have had an easier pass to play in Griezmann for a straightforward finish.

Worse followed for Marseille as they lost Payet to what appeared to be a tweaked groin just after the half-hour. It later emerged he had broken the cardinal superstition and had touched the trophy on his way on to the field. He was in tears as he left the pitch and received a consolatory hug and kiss on the cheek from Griezmann, his France team-mate.

The possibility of a Marseille comeback was significantly diminished four minutes into the second half, moreover, with Griezmann sending a bouncing ball infield for Koke, whose return pass found a gaping hole between the centre-back Adil Rami and the full-back Jordan Amavi. Griezmann ran on and deftly clipped his shot over Mandanda.

In an age in which it can seem as though no lead is ever truly safe, there is a welcome solidity to Atlético. There was a minor scare as the substitute Kostas Mitroglou headed against a post but no Simeone side were ever going to give up a two-goal lead. Gabi’s slick third merely confirmed what had long seemed inevitable.(The Guardian)

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