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Having painstakingly rebuilt confidence in his six months of work at Club Atlético de Madrid, Quique Sánchez Flores knows that a mere 90 minutes now stand between his players and UEFA Europa League glory.
The former SL Benfica coach replaced Abel Resino in the Spanish capital on 23 October last year with Los Rojiblancos bottom of their UEFA Champions League group and boasting just one win from their first seven league matches. Since then, he has lifted Atlético away from the Liga relegation zone and led them to a pair of showpiece occasions, with Wednesday's meeting with Fulham FC in Hamburg coming a week before their Copa del Rey final against Sevilla FC.
It has been a remarkable turnaround, with Atlético now on the verge of their first trophy since their league and cup double in 1995/96, but their upward trajectory will count for little this week. "Everything comes down to this one match," Quique Flores said. "There'll be so much euphoria, while every goal and every mistake will be decisive. It'll be different to any other game."
It will also be different in that Atlético progressed through the last three rounds on away goals after two-legged ties, eliminating Liverpool FC following extra time in the last four. "In a final, there isn't any margin you can take with you, so we have to maintain our level and improve," continued Quique Flores. "It's a privilege for any team to be in the final. We're there now, so we want to take advantage and finish well."
Should they prevail at the Hamburg Arena, it will prove a victory for self-belief as much as talent as far as the coach is concerned. "The confidence aspect was a fundamental thing with the players," explained the 45-year-old, looking back on his early work at the club. "They had to believe in themselves to be able to put in the effort. That was a huge battle, but step by step the team started performing differently in the league and other competitions."
One of the most significant steps was also their first after transferring from the UEFA Champions League, with Diego Forlán's last-minute winner away to Galatasaray AŞ in the round of 32 giving them vital momentum. "We maybe had it hardest against Galatasaray," recalled Quique Flores. "It's difficult to motivate your players at the beginning of the competition when there are so many problems, but they reacted very well in Turkey, which was key. That's when we started to develop a good feeling in this competition."
Now, they face one final hurdle in the shape of Fulham, and Quique Flores paid tribute to the Premier League side. "They're a well-organised team with a good manager," he said. "I've learned that they have a good English player in Bobby Zamora and their three midfielders [Clint] Dempsey, [Simon] Davies and [Zoltán] Gera can make life dangerous for us. But we have players who can make it difficult for them too, like [José Manuel] Jurado, [José Antonio] Reyes and Simão. We'll have to see what happens."
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