19 April ~ What supporters in other countries may view simply as a Europa League clash between two teams from the same country is a great source of pride in Spain, a gloomy place where football seems to be the only thing working properly these days. Although there is a perception that the local duel between Atlético Madrid and Valencia is proof of the dominance of la Liga over the English game, this may not necessarily be the case, despite the additional evidence of Athletic Bilbao’s performances over Manchester United. It is entirely plausible that Spain has three teams in the Europa League semi-finals because it is the only trophy la Liga teams that are not Barcelona and Real Madrid are ever likely to win.
Although Athletic Bilbao still have a chance in the Copa del Rey final – Barcelona stand in the way, of course – this is certainly the case for Valencia and Atlético Madrid. Valencia in particular seem forever destined to finish third in the league, with only the possible change to their status being a drop down the table rather than a move up.
While the 2010 Uefa Cup and subsequent European Super Cup provided Atlético Madrid fans with just enough glory to keep them happy, Valencia’s supporters are desperate for an excuse for a celebration. They have spent a tough period stuck behind the big two, watching their best players being sold year after year.
A win over Atlético Madrid and triumph in the final might not be enough to give manager Unai Emery a contract renewal at the end of the season. The much-maligned coach may not want one, such is the abuse he receives from an uppity set of fans. Emery could yet leave Valencia on a high, after giving the club their finest moment since they won the league title in 2004.
Standing in the way are Atlético Madrid, a battle-hardened outfit lead by Diego Simeone. He took over in December and has built a team that is flakey in la Liga but supremely effective in Europe. Atlético have won all six knock-out games under the Simeone's guidance, and 14 from 16 in the competition overall.
Valencia are the hungrier of the two teams, but Atlético Madrid have the proven pedigree in Europe this season and must start as favourites for a second final appearance in three years. Tim Stannard