Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez are two of the players most crucial to driving Athletic Bilbao’s Europa League title bid (UEFA.com)

Over the last ten months, teams from across Europe have competed to land one of the most prestigious prizes in football; slowly the minnows have been weeded out and discarded by the select few European giants who traditionally dominate the competition. The surprise packages are gone – along with a few big names, too – and it’s all come down to this. One game, between two of the most famous sides in Spanish history – one from the capital with a proud and successful history, one the elected representative of a region with separatist sentiments which thrives on developing and promoting players from its own area. The two meet tonight, with the chance to carry off one of Europe’s biggest trophies.

Except, of course, this isn’t the Champions’ League. And I’m not talking about Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Count them, instead, as some of the cast-off giants, only in a different competition. No, the last two standing for tonight’s Europa League final are Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, arguably two of the three most famous Spanish sides behind the ‘big two’ (I’ll throw Valencia in there and spark outrage among Sevilla and Deportivo fans). And if their respective paths to the final are anything to go by, tonight’s final should be one for the ages.

Bilbao have thrilled all season long in the Europa League with their fearlessness and relentlessly attacking style. In ousting Manchester United in the Round of 16, the Basque club displayed a freedom and sense of adventure rarely seen in European football in the last decade, immediately winning themselves countless admirers from the continental TV audience.

They then proceeded to dump heavily-favoured Schalke out of the quarter-finals before a relatively straight-forward semi-final tie with Sporting Lisbon turned into another battle royal, with Bilbao having to overturn a first-leg deficit in winning the second game 3-1 at home.

Madrid, meanwhile, have faced an easier route through the knock-out phase, mostly steamrolling the likes of Lazio, Besiktas and Hanover 96 before a potentially titanic semi-final showdown with Valencia was utterly dominated by the side from the capital.

Radamel Falcao and Adrian Lopez, two of the 2012 Europa League’s three leading scorers, will be looked to once again to produce the goods for the 2010 champions (UEFA.com)

In Radamel Falcao (10 goals) and Adrián Lopez (8), Atletico boast the joint-leading and third-highest scorers in the competition, as well as the tournament’s assists leader Diego, and the last four rounds have seen them notch up a 19:6 for-against goal differential. Bilbao, no slouches in the goal-scoring department, having struck 17 in their last four games. So whatever we can say about this tournament, the final should be full of goals.

Plenty of star players will be on show, too. The days of the Sergio Aguero-Diego Forlan front line may be gone at Atletico, but Falcao, Lopez and Diego (on loan from Wolfsburg) are all attracting interest from Europe’s richest clubs and have an excellent understanding. Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente, Bilbao’s go-to creator and finisher respectively, are two more highly-talented forwards capable of changing games, while World Cup winner Javi Martinez is a constant in the heart of the defence.

There doesn’t seem to be too much to choose between the two – Bilbao have arguably been more impressive in the Europa League, but Atletico have far from struggled to create chances and are 5th in La Liga, compared to Bilbao’s 9th, with one round of games remaining. The home side won on both occasions in the pair’s league meetings, Bilbao 3-0 in October and Madrid 2-1 six weeks ago. Perhaps the only measurement which separates the two clubs is European success – Bilbao have never won a continental trophy, while Madrid won this very competition just two years ago (beating Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in the final).

Only three non-European managers have ever won a European continental club trophy – all three being Argentinian. That run will be extended in Bucharest tonight, as compatriots Marcelo Bielsa and Diego Simeone pit their wits against one another. Bilbao coach Bielsa is the more experienced, having had a stint as national team manager – where he managed Simeone, who is a UEFA Cup winner as a player (with Inter, 1998).

All the numbers point, then, to a fascinating finale for the oft-underappreciated, and invariably underrated, Europa League.

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