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 here after he was sent from the touchline during the first leg of the semi-final against Arsenal.
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 super clubs, 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 afterwards, “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.”
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, he 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 defending has gone out of fashion and 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 was ever going to give up a two-goal lead. Gabi’s slick third merely confirmed what had long seemed inevitable.