With coach Marcelo Bielsa instilling his distinctive style and panache, Athletic Club have lit up the UEFA Europa League to reach only their second European final – and first since 1977.
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Athletic Club accounted for the likes of Manchester United FC, FC Schalke 04 and Sporting Clube de Portugal to reach their first European showpiece since 1976/77. Coach Marcelo Bielsa's arrival last summer brought a radical change to the Basque side's playing style and the squad have thrived, reaching the finals of both the UEFA Europa League and the Copa del Rey, where they meet FC Barcelona on 25 May. FIFA World Cup winner Javi Martínez has proved a calming presence, while Ander Herrera's class in midfield and Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente's attacking menace have combined to offer new hope to the fans at San Mamés.
Story of the season
Following the promotion of Trabzonspor AŞ – Athletic's rivals in the UEFA Europa League play-off – to the UEFA Champions League, Los Leones were afforded a passage through to the group stage where they were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain FC, FC Salzburg and ŠK Slovan Bratislava. Bielsa's charges finished top of their section with 13 points, losing just once at PSG.
An away goals success against FC Lokomotiv Moskva followed in the round of 32 while in the last 16, Manchester United were defeated away and at home to set up a last-eight meeting with Schalke. The Bundesliga side were stunned by a 4-2 defeat in Germany before the teams drew 2-2 on a rainy night in Bilbao to send Athletic into the semi-finals. Sporting proved difficult to overcome, but a blistering start at home cancelled out a 2-1 first-leg deficit and Llorente's 88th-minute goal sealed a 4-3 aggregate win.
Major UEFA final pedigree
P1 W0 L1
1976/77 UEFA Cup – 2-2 v Juventus (2-1 at home and 1-0 away, losing on away goals)
Record against Atlético
Athletic are no strangers to Atlético, fellow members of the inaugural Spanish championship in 1929. They have met 150 times in the Liga, Atlético claiming 64 wins to Athletic's 59. Their cup rivalry goes even further back, to 1921 when Athletic beat the Madrid side 4-1 in the Copa del Rey final. Two subsequent showpiece meetings have brought one win apiece, for Athletic in 1956 and Atlético in 1985, while the bragging rights from eight other knockout ties were also shared evenly.
This season Athletic won their home Liga fixture 3-0 in October with the help of two Fernando Llorente goals, but a Falcao double consigned them to a 2-1 loss at the Vicente Calderón in March.
Facing a Manchester United team who had entered the tournament following elimination from the UEFA Champions League, Athletic put on an exhibition of attacking football in front of almost 8,000 travelling fans at Old Trafford and earned a 3-2 triumph that – combined with a 2-1 win in the return leg – helped the Lions seal their place in the quarter-finals.
Quote: Gorka Iraizoz, Athletic goalkeeper
"For the club, for the players, for the fans, it's something amazing and we need to enjoy it. The fans love this club, they keep Athletic in their heart and we will now try and make sure that they enjoy themselves in Bucharest."
It is not a great surprise that Athletic's top scorer in the tournament is Llorente. The imposing forward has scored seven goals in 13 UEFA Europa League appearances to date and despite struggling with hip and knee injuries, he has remained his team's focal point up front. A tremendous volley in the 2-1, round of 16 second-leg win against United at San Mamés was the 27-year-old's standout strike in Europe this season, but none were more important than the winner against Sporting.
Midfielder Óscar de Marcos's versatility and tireless work rate have sometimes gone amiss among headline makers such as Llorente, Muniain, Herrera or Markel Susaeta, but the 22-year-old's efforts this term have been no less important. The former Deportivo Alavés player has been used on both wings, and in central midfield, while he has also registered four goals in the UEFA Europa League.