FLORIAN THAUVIN v ANTOINE GRIEZMANN
Antoine Griezmann brings more than a sprinkling of stardust to the Atletico attack and despite a sluggish start to the season, the Frenchman has been revitalised since the turn of the year.
The 27-year-old’s speed, vision and spectacular ability to find the back of the net makes him a leading protagonist for the final. He played the role of talisman expertly in the semi-finals against Arsenal, scoring a late equaliser to secure 10-man Atletico a 1-1 draw at the Emirates before setting up the only goal in the return leg at the Wanda Metropoitano.
Destined to leave this summer, Griezmann will want to sign off with his first major trophy for the club.
Meanwhile, with a left-foot to rival Griezmann’s, Florian Thauvin will lead Marseille into battle against his compatriot.
The 25-year-old is a quick and tricky winger but it’s his finishing that has impressed this season. With 22 goals in Ligue 1 this term, Thauvin has emerged as a significant goal threat.
His trademark move involves him dropping his shoulder, cutting in from the right flank and curling efforts into the far corner, executing them with an unerring accuracy that Arjen Robben would be proud of.
It’s been a coming-of-age season for the attacker and starring in the Europa League final would be the perfect way to cap it.
DIMITRI PAYET v KOKE
Dimitri Payet was in scintillating form for West Ham and then France at Euro 2016 a couple of years ago and he’s continued to impress at Marseille.
The Frenchman is recognised as the best passer in Ligue 1. Only Neymar matches him with 13 assists in the league, while he’s out on his own for key passes with his 121 in 31 appearances dwarfing Benjamin Bourigeaud’s tally of 93 in 36 for Rennes.
Payet’s incisive defence-splitting passes create chances galore for Marseille, as does his quality delivery from set-pieces. His three assists over two legs against Salzburg were crucial to their victory in the semi-finals.
Koke on the other hand is a very different kind of midfield force but still of great importance to Atletico. With Saul Niguez a mainstay in central midfield, Koke’s versatility has seen him deployed on the left flank. However, the team’s compact shape means he is heavily involved in the midfield play.
The Spaniard has more responsibility in attack and defence from his wider role. His work-rate and ball-winning ability is key when Atletico soak up pressure from the opposition and having contributed directly to 11 goals across all competitions this season, he’s more than useful going forward.
LUIZ GUSTAVO v DIEGO GODIN
When Marseille acquired the services of Luiz Gustavo from Wolfsburg for a paltry €8 million (Dh34.8m), no one batted an eyelid but he has since emerged as one of the signings of the season in France.
The Brazilian’s tackling, reading of the game and physicality has seen him impress whether deployed in midfield or at centre-back – where he has vastly exceeded expectations.
The 30-year-old solidifies the Ligue 1 outfit’s defence while also posing a goal threat with his shots from range – scoring five times in the league.
Given the power and intensity Atletico base much of their game on, Gustavo will be integral to Marseille’s resistance.
But if Gustavo is a new revelation in the south of France, Diego Godin is the old warhorse that still has plenty of miles in him at Atletico. The emergence of Lucas Hernandez at his side has aided the La Liga veteran, but there’s no doubt that he’s still the stalwart and commanding presence in Atleti’s back line.
Godin has served as the essence of the foundation upon which Diego Simeone has built Atletico into a formidable force in Spain and Europe over the years. The Uruguayan has made 5.6 clearances per game in Europa this season and will have to keep that up in the final, owing to the dangerous balls in from Payet and Thauvin.
Making player rankings is one of the best ways to have fun as a sports fan. There are so many superstar players, but that mere fact is never enough – we need to know who’s the best.
They’re controversial, too, which is part of the fun. Unlike team standings, player rankings come with a fair degree of subjectivity, no matter what the stats say. And in any case, the best part about rankings is arguing over your favourite players.
Then, of course, you have debates like Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi, and, sometimes, a third player who’s inserted himself into that conversation with a stunning season. This year, the competition comes via a truly special season from Mohamed Salah.
Current Ballon d’Or odds have Ronaldo and Salah as joint-favourites ahead of Messi. Handily enough, the two are set to play each other in the Champions League final next Saturday – although in a World Cup year, that may not be decisive.
We don’t have to worry about the World Cup, at least not yet. With the European season drawing to a close, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the best performers of the year.
Without further ado, here are our rankings of the top ten players across six positions in Europe’s top five leagues – with all the usual obvious names, surprise picks, talking points, and plenty of scope for debate.
There may be no Premier League side involved in the match, to be played in Lyon, but there are still plenty of reasons why English supporters may take interest.
Here, we look at five of them.
Quality of Griezmann
Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann, who has been linked with Manchester United in the past, is now rated as one of the world’s top forwards and Barcelona are reportedly preparing to make a summer swoop.
It is an excellent stage for the Frenchman to show off his talents and it will carry extra personal poignancy given that he was born in Macon, around 60 kilometres away from Lyon.
Unpredictability of Costa
Another player to relish the big occasion is Griezmann’s fiery strike partner, Diego Costa. The Spain international has rediscovered some of his old appetite since his ineffective final days at Chelsea, although form and fitness have been up and down since rejoining Atletico.
Having been forced off injured early in Atleti’s 2014 Champions League final defeat, he may be extra motivated.
Form of Newcastle flop Thauvin
It may come as a surprise to Newcastle supporters, but Florian Thauvin has been one of the stars of Marseille’s run to the final.
Thauvin had a hugely unimpressive five months on Tyneside at the start of the 2015-16 season, his time at St James’ Park best remembered for his arrival at games in a tuxedo.
Thauvin also had to win over doubters on his return to France but he has done that with some exhilarating displays on the wing.
Potential match-winner Payet
Unlike Thauvin, there was little doubt about Dimitri Payet’s ability to deliver when he rejoined Marseille in 2017.
The feeling was more that he needed a change after his relationship with West Ham, where he had previously enjoyed hero status, deteriorated badly.
The 31-year-old might be a difficult character to manage but when happy and on song – as he has been this season – he has the talent to make all the difference.
Impact of Simeone
Atletico boss Diego Simeone has been linked with clubs in the Premier League frequently in recent years having made a big impression with the Rojiblancos. He has so far resisted all moves but should he land another trophy, interest in him will keep growing.
He won the Europa League in 2012, LaLiga in 2014 and has also overseen two Champions League final appearances.
It will be interesting to see his impact as he continues to serve a touchline ban for his dismissal in the semi-final against Arsenal.