Bucharest, Romania. Wednesday, May 9th
Athletic Club Bilbao are crushed. Atletico Madrid celebrate. After ninety minutes at the National Stadium, it was clear that the better side won - a 3-0 scoreline doesn't leave very much room for doubt. And it was clear why it was Atleti who were the better side, the ones lifting the Europa League trophy as Marcelo Bielsa's men wept bitterly disappointed tears. Radamel Falcao.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that Falcao was the dominant force behind Atletico Madrid's victory. After all, he was the dominant force behind Porto's as well, scoring a 17 goals during their 2010/11 campaign, including the winner in the final against Sporting Braga. After a €40 million move to Spain, Falcao didn't miss a beat. Before Wednesday's match, the striker had scored ten goals in twelve European matches for Atletico, giving him a ratio of 1.04 goals per Europa League match over the past two seasons.
It was no surprise, then, that the Colombian was the difference during the the Battle of The Two Different Spellings Of 'Athletic', which is probably not going to be a nickname that catches on. He turned a tense affair into a rout, singlehandedly catapulting Atletico into a 2-0 lead in the first half. Seven minutes in, he unleashed a brilliant shot on the turn, using Jon Aurtenetxe as a screen as he bent the ball into Gorka Iraizoz's top corner*.
*Fun fact: If you say all of the surnames on the Athletic Club squad list out loud seven times, it summons Cthulhu from the sunken city of R'lyeh. Don't try this at home. We recommend a wide-open space.
Then, just before halftime, Falcao struck again, controlling an errant cross sent in by Arda Turan before an acrobatic turn opened up space for a shot six yards out. Once against Iraizoz had no chance, and Bielsa was left to contemplate his team's complete and utter inability to deal with the 26-year-old striker. In fact, the only thing that was stopping Falcao was ... himself. He had a couple of opportunities to make it a hattrick, but it was Diego who made it three - only after Falcao had hit the post with a shot that had the goalkeeper comfortably beaten.
Atletico won as a team, of course, but the rest of the side was the base that enabled Falcao to do his work. Even at Porto, a team chock full of superstars, that was true. Over the past two seasons, he has scored more than 40% of the winning club's goals, an absolutely incredible figure, and it appears that, for all intents and purposes, having Falcao on your team means that you win the competition.
The strange part is trying to figure out why Falcao is still playing in what, realistically speaking, is the second tier of European football. He's a world-class centre forward, talked about in the same breaths as the likes of Napoli's Edinson Cavani or Arsenal's Robin van Persie, and he was widely expected to go to a Champions League team (or, at least, to stay at Porto, who were a Champions League team for 2011/12) over last summer. Instead, Atletico splashed their Sergio Aguero money to bring him to the Vicente Calderon.
Obviously, it's a move that's paid off for the club, but it's a baffling one from Falcao's perspective. His stock hasn't appreciably risen with his new team - he's regarded as one of Europe's top strikers, which was true a year ago as well - he (presumably) hasn't been paid as much as he could have had he gone to, say, Chelsea or Manchester City and although Athletic and Valencia are fine competition, he could have been trying his hand against the best players in the world instead of being relegated to what is essentially a sideshow.
It's probably time for the king of the Europa League to move onwards and upwards. The Champions League needs as many players like Falcao as it can possibly get, and if he really wants to confirm his status as one of the best centre forwards in the game, he needs it too.