The Europa League doesn’t count for much these days; that’s what some keep saying, anyway. But tell it to fans of Liverpool, who watched horrified through slits between their fingers as their side let a lead slip in the final against Sevilla in 2016. Or of Manchester United, who wildly celebrated the completion of their European curriculum vitae this time last year against Ajax. Or of Arsenal, who would have moved heaven and earth to give Arsène Wenger an appropriate send-off tonight. Yeah, it still counts for something all right. Don’t let the naysayers prevail.
The 2018 final will be contested by between two clubs with a proper European pedigree. Marseille conquered the continent in 1993, the very first victors of the Champions League era. Atlético Madrid by comparison don’t have a European Cup to their name, despite coming within a minute of victory in 1974 and 2014, and losing a penalty shoot-out in 2016 ... but they do have the 1962 Cup Winners Cup plus two Europa League triumphs in 2010 and 2012 to soften the blow.
Atlético start as favourites tonight in Lyon. They currently stand as the number-two team in La Liga; started their campaign this season in the Champions League; and have significantly the better record in Europe in recent times. Diego Simeone has already won this trophy with Atlético, during the infancy of his reign in 2012, and his team have been serious contenders for more continental silverware ever since ... but let’s not open the wound of those near misses in the Champions League again. A third Europa League title would erase a lot of that pain; their calm, patient, ruthless dispatching of Arsenal in the semis suggests some European redemption is very much on their minds.
Marseille by contrast stand fourth in Ligue 1, and stuttered a little en route to this final. Having taken a 2-0 first-leg lead in the semis against Salzburg, they gave it up in the return, but squeaked through thanks to a late extra-time goal against the run of play, scored from a corner that never should have been awarded. They’ve never beaten Atlético (though admittedly the sample is only two matches, a 0-0 draw and a 2-1 defeat in Madrid in the Champions League groups back in 2008). They’ve only won one of their nine matches in Europe this season away from the Stade Vélodrome. They’ve only won four of 15 games against Spanish opposition, while Atlético by comparison have only lost once in 12 matches against French clubs. Oh, and a team from France has never won the Fairs Cup, Uefa Cup or Europa League.
But then nobody expected Marseille’s 1993 vintage to beat the Milan of van Basten, Baresi, Maldini and Papin. And look what happened there.
Will Diego Simeone’s brilliant battlers win the trophy their recent efforts on the continent have deserved? Or will Rudi García’s talented but unpredictable team shine on the big day and finally bring another major European title back to the Stade Vélodrome? It’s perfectly poised. It’s Olympique de Marseille versus Club Atlético de Madrid. It’s the 2018 Europa League final ... and it is, very much, unquestionably, oh yes, on!
Kick off: 8.45pm local time at the Stade de Lyon; 7.45pm in the UK.