Diego Simeone has warned his Atletico Madrid players to be wary of an intense and fearless Athletic Bilbao when the Spanish sides line up in Bucharest aiming for Europa League final glory on Wednesday.
In an impressive five-month spell in charge, Simeone has taken Atletico to their second Europa League final in three years, the Spaniards having claimed their maiden European trophy with a 2-1 victory over Fulham in 2010.
But the man who took over in December following the sacking of Gregorio Manzano expects his credentials will be tested to the full by an Athletic side who, although yet to win big on the European stage, will prove tough opponents.
“They’re a team with a lot of intensity; a direct style of football; quick and brave — a team that isn’t afraid to play their way, even in away matches,” Simeone told the UEFA Web site.
“They’ve played like that throughout the whole season. And knowing the team and their coach, I know they will be the same in any game, whether it’s a friendly or a final.”
As well as pitting two Spanish sides against each other, the final will also see Simeone pit his tactical nous against former coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa was Argentina’s coach when Simeone collected the last of his then record 106 caps with the national team at the 2002 World Cup.
And while Simeone has expressed his “great admiration” for his fellow Argentine, he believes the coaches’ input will be limited, saying: “The players play it; we just stand outside.”
“When it comes to matches like this, those who’ve already played in one know what to expect, but that guarantees you nothing,” he added.
While Atletico have the bigger pedigree in Europe and currently sit in fourth, five places above Athletic, in La Liga, Bielsa’s fiery Basques have been one of the most entertaining teams of this season’s tournament.
Athletic underlined their ambitions by eliminating Manchester United in the round of 16, ending Sir Alex Ferguson’s hopes of making amends for their Champions League exit by winning the tournament.
They went on to oust Schalke 04 in the quarter-finals and Sporting Lisbon in the semis to book their first European final since the 1976-77 UEFA Cup, when Juventus prevailed, winning a two-leg final on away goals.
Bielsa has also put Athletic in with a chance of a rare double; they will meet Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) on May 25.
On paper, there is very little to separate the sides but Atletico striker Falcao and his Athletic counterpart Fernando Llorente will be expected to play decisive roles in the Romanian capital.
Falcao has scored 33 goals in all competitions this season. It is way off the record-breaking 72-goal tally of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, but with 23 goals the Colombian is the third-top scorer in La Liga.
The 26-year-old also has the advantage of having already experienced the tension of a European final, having triumphed with FC Porto last season when he scored a record 17 goals in the competition, including the only goal in the final.
Although with seven goals Llorente has scored three less than Falcao in this season’s competition, the Spaniard has hit the net when it mattered most.
Decisive for their respective sides throughout, Bucharest’s city council has heaped further pressure on the pair by temporarily renaming two of the city’s metro stations after them.