After painful defeats in recent continental finals, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are determined to justify their status as favourites in Wednesday’s Europa League showpiece against Marseille in Lyon.
Atletico lost in extra time to Real Madrid in the Champions League final of 2014, having been second away from victory in 90 minutes, and then lost on penalties to their city rivals in the final of the same competition two years later.
An exit from this season’s Champions League in the group stage came as a big surprise for a formidable side spearheaded by Antoine Griezmann in attack, but they have put that behind them to close on glory in Europe’s less prestigious competition.
Atletico are looking to win the Europa League for the third time in nine seasons, after triumphing in 2010 and again in 2012, shortly after ‘Cholo’ Simeone was appointed coach.
“We can’t wait for the final to come around,” full-back Juanfran told Radio Marca as Atletico target a first trophy since 2014, when they won La Liga.
“With ‘Cholo’ lots of things have changed at Atletico. Everything we have experienced in these last few years we will remember forever. I hope we can get another little medal.”
It would be a first, and possibly last major medal as an Atletico player for Griezmann, who was raised not far from Lyon but has spent his whole career in Spain.
The 27-year-old forward joined Atletico from Real Sociedad on the back of their title success in 2014, but could soon be on his way to Barcelona.
Griezmann and Diego Costa will lead Simeone’s attack as Atletico return to Lyon, where they lost 3-0 to Dynamo Kiev in the final of the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1986.
– Home advantage –
Atletico have had plenty of heartbreak in European finals down the years, as have Marseille.
The French club have previously appeared in four, losing three, the exception being their victory over AC Milan in the inaugural Champions League final in 1993.
Rudi Garcia’s team were not expected to make it this far, having started their European campaign in the qualifying rounds last July.
But after rousing wins over RB Leipzig in the last eight and Salzburg in the semi-finals, OM and their passionate fans are now dreaming of glory on home soil.
“Those who won the Champions League in 1993 are still heroes because nobody else has done it since,” Dimitri Payet told UEFA.com.
“We know how tough it is. Of course, that’s an added source of motivation, and if we do win the final, our names will be written into the club’s history books forever.”
Marseille are also battling for a top-three finish in the French league, and the fear is that fatigue will be a factor as they try to break down Atletico’s brilliant defence.
“They are a big club, a super team with great players and a great coach. They are used to playing in big European matches. They are clear favourites but we will do everything to create a surprise,” winger Florian Thauvin told sports daily L’Equipe.
Payet is “optimistic” he will shake off a minor muscle problem to feature in Wednesday’s game, where Marseille will hope to have a big support behind them.
Only around 11,500 of their fans will officially be in attendance, however, but several thousand more should make the three-hour trip to Lyon.
Authorities are preparing for the threat of trouble, with a big rivalry developing in recent years between Marseille and Lyon.
Since reaching the final, Marseille fans have taunted Lyon and their outspoken president Jean-Michel Aulas with chants of: “We’re going to smash up your house”.
There will be 1,250 police officers deployed in the city and around the Groupama Stadium for Wednesday’s match. (PTI)