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Defeat spells heartache for Athletic

A red-eyed Ander Herrera summed up the sadness in the Athletic Club dressing room after their UEFA Europa League final loss when he declared: "Right now there's only pain."

Ander Herrera (left) and Fernando Llorente stand dejected at full time in Bucharest
Ander Herrera (left) and Fernando Llorente stand dejected at full time in Bucharest ©Getty Images

Ander Herrera did not need to say anything. His eyes, reddened by tears, said everything about how the Athletic Club midfielder was feeling in the wake of his side's UEFA Europa League final defeat.

He was not alone. In the case of the 19-year-old Iker Muniain, the youngest in a team whose average age was only 24, the tears began flowing directly after Diego's late goal sealed Club Atlético de Madrid's 3-0 triumph and with it, the fate of Marcelo Bielsa's side. It was a bitter ending to a brave and wonderful adventure, and Herrera summed up the mood when he told UEFA.com: "We're devastated. I suppose with the passing of time we'll see it differently, we'll feel proud. But right now there's only pain."

There will be lengthy post-mortems on the 48 charter flights taking back the Athletic fans who flew out to Bucharest and who, numbering over 10,000, brought so much colour to the Romanian capital with their black berets and red and white stripes. But the simple truth according to Bielsa's heartbroken players was they paid the price for a poor start. "The first goal did a lot of damage and we weren't able to get back on track," admitted Herrera.

Markel Susaeta elaborated on Athletic's failings in that damaging first period that brought two goals for Falcao, after seven and 34 minutes. "I think in the first half we didn't play the football we've played all season. And the two great goals by Falcao, they really decided the game in their favour. We couldn't find the right response. We had chances, but the ball didn't want to go in."

Where Falcao took his chances with aplomb, Fernando Llorente, Athletic's top scorer in the competition, sliced their best opening of the half wide. "In the first period, if we had scored from our first chance, it would have been a different game. But in the end the game went a different way," Susaeta added.

Andoni Iraola said much the same: "The key was the start of the match. We knew that if they got in front it would be difficult for us because they can sit back effectively and on the counter have players who can unbalance you. We weren't good and Falcao was decisive." The knowledge that this had been Athletic's first opportunity to win a European final for 35 years only made it worse. "I don't know when an opportunity like this will happen to us again. To let it slip by is a shame," Iraola added.

Herrera found at least something positive, in Athletic's second-half effort to turn things round when they created several goalscoring chances but failed to take them, so ensuring their first blank in 15 European outings this term. "You still have to appreciate the effort of the team – we tried to maintain our philosophy. Today it wasn't to be but we're laying the foundations so that soon we can win something," he said.

That long-awaited first trophy since 1984 may come sooner rather than later. Athletic take on FC Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final on 25 May, when they will hope to avoid the fate suffered in 1977 when they lost both the UEFA Cup and Spanish Cup finals. Susaeta said: "We have to pick ourselves up, we have the final of the Copa del Rey and we have to give the fans something to cheer because they did not stop supporting us."

That support did not go unnoticed, and nor did the efforts of Bielsa's players in a campaign that will live long in the memory.