Pat Nevin: 'It is still a decent sized mountain to climb'
Pat's thoughts on the second legs in the Semi Finals of the UEFA Europa League.
We are not biased here at Channel 5 honest, but the performance by Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of the semi-final of the Europa League was a bit of a disappointment. For whatever reason our ‘pet’ team just didn’t turn up for most of the match against Sporting Lisbon. Now you have to say the Portuguese side went about their business very well, and no doubt deserved to go into the second leg with an advantage, but we just hoped for a little more from Muniain, Susaeta and Llorente.
When the Auternetxe scored to give Bilbao an unexpected and frankly undeserved lead I was sure they would start playing with more confidence, verve and Bilbao-ishness. Instead it was Sporting, particularly through Capel who really started to go for it. Actually it wasn’t just their Spanish right winger, their left full back Insua was on fire throughout, other than a mis-hit that led to his team losing the opener.
Yes Liverpool fans, that Insua. He was up and down that left flank like a man possessed and thoroughly deserved the headed equaliser he got. That was from Capel’s cross and it was truly fitting that Capel himself would net the winner during that second half when Sporting were dominating. What it has done is set up a perfect second leg where Bilbao have to really go for it in front of their own fans at the San Mames. Like they would be allowed to do anything else by those brilliant supporters.
Maybe it was tiredness that led to the sluggish display by the Basques and it would be understandable to some extent, they only ever seem to change the team when they have injuries and suspensions. The coach Bielsa is probably more interested in crop rotation in his back garden that squad rotation in his team. At the weekend there was a 1-0 win against Racing Santander, which always goes down very well in Bilbao I can tell you, so maybe that is just the lift they needed.
There will however be another lift, the return from suspension of their defensive talisman Javi Martinez. Actually now it all makes sense, whether he is stationed at centre back or in the centre of midfield, Martinez is the man who pulls the strings and sets the tempo for Bilbao. Sporting’s coach Sa Pinto will have to make sure he has a plan for the returning prodigal, maybe he should be a little more defensive this time, playing with a deep lying midfielder as he did in the first leg of the home game before he threw caution to the wind in such spectacular fashion. Protecting the lead they have would be the sensible belt and braces approach.
Talking about belts and particularly braces, what was on Sa Pintos’ mind when he dressed for the touchline in the last tie? If you didn’t see it, the braces were something a 1980s stock and shares yuppie would have blanched at. Actually far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone’s sartorial elegance but the entire outfit was either fatally misjudged or there were clear signs of a substantial bet being lost or even possible evidence that there is a warp in the space time continuum that makes the Pinto house dress in a thirty year delay. I actually wouldn’t put any money on it, but I have serious suspicions that he was actually wearing eyeliner as well! Still if his side wins then most people, other than the fashion police, will forgive him…eventually.
It is a big job however because surely at some point the real Athletic Bilbao will turn up in this tie, I just cannot imagine 180 minutes where Muniain will not do something special and Llorente will not get a few chances, which is usually enough for him to score a couple of goals.
Lying in wait will be either Valencia or Atletico Madrid. The first leg in that one was a bit tasty as well, with the 4-2 scoreline in favour of Madrid not telling half the story. With 93 minutes on the clock it was 4-1 and the finalists had been, to all intents and purposes, decided, but a last gasp headed goal by Costa changed the complexion of things.
Now it is still a decent sized mountain to climb, but Valencia just need an early goal and suddenly that one could also easily go either way. They certainly have a few things in their favour, not lest they are playing at home. They also know that there is only one option and that is to attack, whereas Atletico must be wondering whether it is worth really going for it and as such leaving themselves open. There is another positive for Valencia and that is the two goals they did score in the first leg showed a very big and obvious weakness in the opposition. Adil Rami also scored from a header and all night Atletico looked vulnerable in that area. Maybe they will be tempted to shelve the pretty football this time and go for the hoof and hope approach, be fair after all, if it worked for Chelsea v Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League semi then what is the problem?
Valencia do however have one major problem and that is Madrid’s not so secret lethal weapon, one Senor Falcao. Channel Five regulars will remember him for his exploits in Porto colours last season in the Europa League when he was unstoppable. Actually anyone who read my columns last season would have noted my, none too subtle, suggestions that Chelsea should buy him pronto to replace the ageing Didier Drogba. Chelsea didn’t, they acquired the manager instead, briefly, and Falcao legged it off to Spain to show that he can do it in the very highest company.
In the first leg Falcao scored a very nifty header to get himself started, but his second and the forth for his team was arguably the best goal scored in the Europa League this season. For that reason alone I reckon that Atletico, the inaugural winners, will be in the final again, the only question remains who will they face?
Personally I have no idea who it will be, you can of course find out live on Five on Thursday. If it was however a final that pitted the scoring prowess of Falcao v Llorente, I think that would be a perfect way to end the tournament, but I wouldn’t want to be accused of being biased or anything.