It’s a well worn footballing cliché that one of the most important aspects of the game is luck, and when it comes to Atletico Madrid’s route to the Europa League final this season, the luck of the draw has most definitely played its part.
Boasting, or rather not depending on your perspective, a record that stands in Europe this season at played 14, won 4, drawn 8 and lost 4, it’s amazing that they have even made it to the final at all. This record includes two wins in qualifying for the Champions League against Greek side Panathanaikos both home and away.
To put that into perspective, barring qualifying for a tournament which they then proceeded to get knocked out of at the first hurdle after collecting only 3 points in 6 games, they have somehow managed to get to the final of a European competition despite winning only twice, both of which came in the Europa League by a single goal deficit against Galatasary away and Liverpool at home.
In this run of 16 games they have scored 17 goals and conceded 22, a record in keeping with their reputation for a side that contains both a shoddy defence and that relies heavily on the forward talents of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan.
Fulham in contrast started their arduous campaign away to FK Vetra of Lithuania on the 30th July, and have been playing in this tournament for just over 9 months. They are certainly not the Jonny-come-latelys that Atletico are, a side that only started their Europa League campaign on February 18th at home to Galatasary.
In their superb run, Fulham have played 18, won 11, drawn 4 and lost just 3, with the defeats coming to little-known Russian side Amkar Perm and Italian giants Roma and Juventus away. On this formidable run they have scored 30 goals and conceded just 16, hardly the mark of a side built solely on their defensive capability, a statement which has been rolled out as reason for their continued yet surprising success every time that they have advanced even further in Europe. This is as ignorant as it is incorrect.
This will undoubtedly be one of the most keenly fought European finals in recent times with the sides intriguingly matched but it’s a sad indictment of a European tournament when a side currently eleventh in the Premiership with 15 losses to their name in a domestic league season faces up against a side tenth in La Liga with sixteen loses to their name are the representatives to contest a major European final, albeit the second-tier one.
Fulham unquestionably deserve their final place though and it should be noted that for some time now their emphasis and attention has been on securing an historic first European final. The sides they have beaten on the way have been exceptional teams and Roy and his men fully deserve their place. The fact that they will probably go into the final as everyone in England’s favourite second team is a testament to their style of play, the demeanour with which they carry themselves with manager Hodgson as humble as they come and because it was quite simply all so unexpected – everyone loves and underdog.
Atletico up until even as late as Christmas though, were right in the relegation mix until the club appointed Quique Sanchez Flores in place of Abel Resino. At least with Fulham you can see a steady improvement whereas Atletico’s side are just a monument to wasted talent.
They are not a poor side, they have finished fourth in La Liga in two consecutive season prior to this one, last year it was ahead of both Valencia and Villarreal, and in 2007/8 they were fractionally ahead of Sevilla on the same points but they clinched the Champions League berth after having a better head to head record during the season, but this campaign has certainly been one of massive underperformance and missed opportunities.
The way the Europa League is structured gives sides such as Liverpool and Atletico a second chance at a European trophy when sides that start out in the Europa League like Fulham only get one. This is completely unfair and needs to be rectified and restructured so that the bigger sides don’t get a reward as such for their underachievement.
Atletico still have the Copa Del Rey final to play for too, the Spanish equivalent of the FA Cup, against Sevilla a week after the Europa League final, having advanced yet again playing either no teams of note, leaking goals and generally getting more than their fair share of luck along the way.
Atletico Madrid winger Simao’s words that a place in the Europa League final was a “well deserved prize” do seem somewhat hollow when comparing their progression to the final to Fulham’s and you’d be hard pressed to find a less deserving side to contest a European final in recent memory.