The Europa League final is set up as an intriguing battle between two vastly different sides. Diego Simeone‘s Atlético Madrid, with their relentless intensity and defensive nous come up against Rudi Garcia’s Marseille and their high-flying attack.
Simeone’s side are playing in their third European final in four years, and are thus rightly the favourites for Wednesday’s clash. For Garcia, it’s a chance for a first triumph since leading Lille to a league-and-cup double in 2011.
Here’s a look at the key tactical decisions each manager will be mulling.
VITOLO VS CORREA IS SIMEONE’S BIG CALL
Simeone has so many options with his midfield. Saul and Koke pick themselves, but after that, it could be any two of Gabi, Vitolo, Angel Correa or Thomas Partey. With Gabi, the question is one of experience vs age – the former is exactly what you want in a European final, but the latter could leave Atletico exposed against Marseille’s attack. It’s more likely that Partey starts, and then Simeone has to pick between Vitolo and Correa, each of whom started one leg of the Arsenal tie. Vitolo’s combativeness or Correa’s pace on the counter? The game could rest on that call.
GARCIA’S MIDFIELD HEADACHE
Garcia’s preferred formation means he has to pick between Maxime Lopes, Morgan Sanson, and Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa – a dilemma he has been facing all season. Lopes and Sanson got the nod in both legs of the semi-final against Salzburg, but Anguissa has usually been preferred to Sanson in the league, and has been a more consistent performer.
Both have their merits – Anguissa is better suited to handle Atlético’s physical game, while Sanson provides more attacking impetus against a Rojiblancos side that will, as always, defend first. Garcia will likely plump for Sanson again, but it’s a close call.
YOUTH VS EXPERIENCE FOR ATLÉTICO’S RIGHT-BACK SLOT
At 26, Sime Vrsaljko isn’t exactly what you’d call a young player – unless the competition is 33-year-old Juanfran. The veteran Spaniard is one of five holdovers from the Atlético team that won the 2012 Europa League final, and seems to have become Simeone’s first-choice right-back in recent weeks.
That must partly be down to Vrsaljko’s 10th-minute sending-off in the first leg of the semi-final. Simeone may have been incensed by the referee over that decision, but he can’t have been happy with the Croat’s recklessness, either. Juanfran will keep a cooler head – and against Marseille’s attack, that could prove vital.
Here we take a look at some key stats ahead of what promises to be an entertaining game of football.
– Simeone is the only non-European coach – indeed the only one from outside Spain and Portugal – to have won the UEFA Europa League.
– Atlético have not beaten a French club in France since September 1961, when they won 3-2 at Sedan in the first round of their triumphant European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign
– Marseille skipper Dimitri Payet has recorded seven assists in this season’s UEFA Europa League, the most in the competition.
– Marseille have been involved in four previous major UEFA competition finals, while Atlético Madrid will be competing in their ninth – and fifth in the past nine seasons.
– Marseille’s sole victory in four major UEFA competition final appearances came in the 1992/93 UEFA Champions League with a 1-0 win against Milan in Munich.
– Four players have scored twice in the fixture – Diego Forlán (Atlético) in 2010, Radamel Falcao (Atlético) in 2012, Carlos Bacca (Sevilla) in 2015 and Coke (Sevilla) in 2016; there has yet to be a hat-trick.
– This is the ninth UEFA Europa League final. The previous eight have yielded 21 goals at an average of 2.625 per game. The biggest winning margin was Atlético’s 3-0 win against Athletic Club in 2012
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.