Bilbao impress again at San Mames as Llorente winner sets up Spanish Europa League final extravaganza
Spain’s Basque region will be rejoicing after a late Fernando Llorente goal secured their place in this year’s Europa League final.
Athletic Bilbao beat Sporting Lisbon 3-1 at the San Mames to take them to the 9th May date at Bucharest with a 4-3 aggregate win.
Their team has been labelled as Bilbao’s ‘Golden generation’ but unlike England teams that have been bestowed that nickname, this lot really mean business.
They have set the Europa League alight with their style, not dissimilar to Barcelona’s, with players constantly inter-changing positions in a vibrant, rhythmical fashion.
It was another brilliant night of European football in another evenly poised match going into kick off.
In a battle of the two Manchester vanquishers, Bilbao having knocked out United, and Sporting having removed City, Bilbao set a furious pace for the opening 15 minutes which saw a great piece of footwork from Ibai Gomez almost open the deadlock.
Sporting’s away form in the Europa League of one win in their last six made Bilbao slight favourites coming into the game.
And so it proved in the 16th minute when a great cross from Muniain found Llorente, who chested the ball down for Susaeta to hit home on the half volley to send his team ahead.
Indeed, Muniain and Llorente, who may well be leading the Spanish line at the European Championships, would prove dangerous all night long.
The game then proceeded to become even more open, with attack and possession being traded with growing frequency.
Ibai had a goal disallowed on the half hour mark, but was yards offside when the replays were shown.
Javi Martinez continued to show why he is one of Europe’s hottest prospects; with the incisive passing abilities of a central midfielder and the positional sense of a centre back, it is no wonder so many clubs want him on their books.
Bilbao were applying heavy pressure as the half came to its climax, with Llorente and Ibai both squandering decent chances to double their team’s advantage.
But it was Sporting that took the initiative when Van Wolfswinkel finished well from the edge of the box after Bilbao failed to clear from a corner.
This brought Sporting right back into the fold with an away goal.
However, their joy was short-lived as Bilbao hit back through an excellent assist from Llorente, who received the ball, back to goal, and then dragged the ball back and flicked through to an on-rushing Ibai who converted coolly.
This made the score 2-1 at half time, meaning that the match was as even as it could possibly be, at 3-3 on aggregate with each team having scored one away goal each.
A scrappier, slower-paced and altogether nerve-racking second half looked to be going to extra time with neither team looking like grabbing a winner.
Yet with two minutes to go, the man of the match Fernando Llorente thought otherwise.
When a cross from Martinez was not cleared sufficiently and fell to Ibai, the 27 year old raced in front of his marker to meet the cross and poke his leg to see the ball ricochet in off the inside of the near post.
A late Jeffren effort momentarily made the Basque crowd breathless, only for keeper Iraizoz to smother the ball safely.
When the full time whistle blew, pandemonium reigned. Llorente could be seen in tears, whilst his team-mates leaped for joy or lay on the floor contemplating what had just happened.
The 90 minutes that had past will live long in their memories, as will the 90 minutes to come in Bucharest on 9th May when they meet Atletico Madrid in a mouth-watering finale.