The Basques face Atletico Madrid in Bucharest tonight in an all-Spanish Europa League final.
Athletic Bilbao hope to sail off with Europa League trophy
Whenever Athletic Bilbao win a trophy, their victorious players take to a sturdy barge called Athletic for a victory parade along the River Nervion in central Bilbao.
The barge hasn't been used since 1984 when Athletic won three different trophies in four months, including an eigthth Spanish title and 23rd Copa del Rey. Then, hundreds of thousands of fans lined the river bank of the old industrial city, with hundreds more following the barge in a hastily assembled flotilla to rival anything seen at Dunkirk.
Giant photos adorn the wall of the San Mames stadium, black and white images of a bygone era when Athletic and their Basque neighbours Real Sociedad won four consecutive league titles.
The loyal 38,000 who fill San Mames each week are desperate to see Athletic take to the water again this month - and tonight's Europa League final against Atletico Madrid in Bucharest gives them a first chance, before the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona in Madrid on May 25.
Spanish clubs have excelled in Europe this season, with five of the eight semi-final slots taken by Primera Liga sides. Such progress helped deflect criticism that there is no quality below Spain's big two, with Athletic alone beating two of last season's Uefa Champions League semi-finalists, Manchester United and Schalke, plus monied Paris Saint-Germain.
The media focus was on a widely expected Champions League final between Barca and Real until they fell to Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Unlike the big two, Athletic and Atletico held their nerve and maintained their outstanding Europa League form to set up a second all-Spanish final in five years following Sevilla's victory over Espanyol in an absorbing 2007 final at Hampden Park in Glasgow.
Athletic's charge to Bucharest's stunning new 55,000-capacity national stadium has been the higher profile. Home and away victories over the English champions United won them admirers around the world for the Barca-style football engineered by Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Their friendly fans travelled in large numbers to matches - 8,000 of them journeyed to Old Trafford - with in-demand striker Fernando Llorente describing it as the highlight of his club career so far. Athletic have played an energy-sapping 60 games this season in eight different countries. They have also used fewer players than any other Spanish team, with the unconventional Bielsa no fan of squad rotation. Winger Markel Susaeta has appeared in all 60 games.
Yet Atletico have contested a bigger total of 18 Europa League ties, winning 16, drawing one and losing one, starting last July against Stromsgodset in Norway. Two coaches can claim credit for the run - Gregorio Manzano who was dismissed in December, and his replacement Diego Simeone, who played for his county Argentina under Bielsa.
Atletico have risen to fifth in the league under Simeone, but their best football has been in Europe where they beat Italian Serie A sides Udinese, 4-0 at home, and Lazio, 3-1 away. They also put three past Turkish side Besiktas home and away, defeated Germany's Hannover home and away and their Spanish compatriots Valencia likewise in the semi-finals.
The final is a serious affair, with all tickets sold and 60 chartered planes, including one 580-seat 747, taking fans east to Romania. The evenly matched pair have met twice in the league this season, with one win apiece. The Atleti of David de Gea, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan won the competition in 2010 after defeating Fulham in Hamburg, but such is the constantly shifting nature of their team, there is not a single player from that victory expected to start tonight.
Athletic's side is far more settled, though several of their Spanish international stars such as Llorente, Javi Martinez and Iker Munian will attract big bids from rival clubs in the summer.
A rich, debt-free club with a strong Basque element, Athletic are under no pressure to sell any players, though success in one of the two cup competitions will help them keep their stars.
They have already qualified for next season's Europa League by virtue of reaching the Copa del Rey final, but they want to see a first trophy since 1984 and a first ever European trophy.
Only then will the old barge set sail.
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