Ander Herrera pinpointed Athletic Club's memorable last-16 victory over Manchester United FC as the moment the Basque outfit really began to imagine UEFA Europa League glory possible – and on Wednesday that dream can be realised.
Marcelo Bielsa's quiet revolution had brought steady improvement before they arrived at Old Trafford in March, their slick, intense style gaining plaudits but not always results. It looked like more of the same as they approached half-time trailing 1-0, but Fernando Llorente's equaliser set the wheels in motion and second-half goals from Óscar de Marcos and Iker Muniain sealed a famous 3-2 win.
"It was the moment perhaps we realised we could do something special in this competition, and go far," Herrera said of that night in north-west England. "It was the moment we made a mark, we showed our ability, our qualities, and that we could beat anyone – it was a launchpad to beat one of the best teams in the world and outplay them." They did so again in the second leg, winning 2-1, and momentum and belief has built accordingly.
Athletic took another notable scalp in FC Schalke 04 next time out before showing their newfound mettle against Sporting Clube de Portugal in the last four, overturning a 2-1 first-leg deficit. Their reward is a final against Club Atlético de Madrid in Bucharest. "We are determined to end the tournament on a winning note, staying true to our attacking, pressing philosophy and style," said the 22-year-old Herrera.
There is a mounting belief around the showpiece that, ultimately, experience will tell; that even though there are few survivors of Atlético's 2010 triumph, they know how to win. Herrera acknowledges that know-how is a factor but stresses it is not 'the' factor. "We have eliminated and beaten teams older and more experienced than us to get here; we compensate for what we lack with our style, passion and ambition."
Earlier, Atlético's Falcao had said similarly that Athletic have youth on their side and, with it, an almost unbounded enthusiasm. At 29, Andoni Iraola cannot claim that youthfulness, but he does not lack that passion. "For anyone to experience this, to be on the verge of a big final, it's a dream," he said. "We've dreamed of this since we were in the academy, of bringing joy to our fans after 28 years without a trophy – they have suffered."
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