Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid deliver trademark performance to seal Europa League glory
LYON, France -- Three thoughts on Atletico Madrid's 3-0 win over Marseille in the Europa League final.
1. Atletico win first trophy in four years
Antoine Griezmann's double and captain Gabi's late goal secured a 3-0 victory for Atletico Madrid over Marseille in Wednesday's 2018 Europa League final -- with Diego Simeone's side deserved winners both on the night and of the competition.
A spirited Marseille team gave it their all, but Atletico were just too streetwise and also just too good. Both of Griezmann's goals were superbly finished after naive mistakes from the French side, while Gabi's late clincher came just after substitute Clinton Njie had butchered his side's last chance to make a game of it.
Cheered on by what seemed to be about 80 percent of the 59,000 in the crowd at the Stade de Lyon, Marseille made by far the better start -- only for a crucial error on 20 minutes from young midfielder Andre Zambo Anguissa to be punished ruthlessly by Atletico's No. 7.
The mood inside the stadium swung completely with the goal, and things fell even further Atletico's way when Marseille's best player, Dimitri Payet, was soon forced off injured. Rudi Garcia's team had two-thirds of the possession in the first 45 minutes, but Atletico scored their only real chance.
Simeone's side scored their first opportunity of the second half, too, as just four minutes in Saul Niguez was quickest to a loose ball near the halfway line, and within seconds Koke released Griezmann to exquisitely lift the ball over Steve Mandanda and into the net. Marseille kept trying, but the breaks kept going Atletico's way, and substitute Kostas Mitroglou's deft late header beat Jan Oblak but not the post.
Gabi then wrapped up the scoring late on, and celebrated like a man who would prefer to forget he called this competition "s---" when his side dropped into it from the Champions League last December. However, they quickly refocused their campaign around this relatively achievable target. In truth the semi-finals against Arsenal provided a bigger challenge for Simeone's side, who did not even need to be at their very best here.
Winning the Europa League was not how Atletico planned their 2017-18 season to end, but they proved Wednesday night that they were clearly the best team in this season's competition, and a four-year wait for another major trophy is finally over.
2. Griezmann delivers potential parting shot on big stage
If this is to be Griezmann's final big game for Atletico, then the France international delivered in a huge way -- making a case that he could well be the world's third-best individual player.
The Rojiblanco side's build-up to the game was dominated by talk over Griezmann's future, with a €100 million summer move to Barcelona reportedly lined up. He was then among the Atletico players who did not seem quite right through the opening stages, as just minutes before the game's key moment he uncharacteristically lost possession deep in his own half. But when Anguissa's error was anticipated and pounced upon by Gabi, the locally born, boyhood Lyon fan was super cool as he tricked his France teammate Mandanda and rolled the ball nervelessly into the net.
Even with Diego Costa back, Griezmann has clearly been Atletico's most important player through this season -- with his dip in form at the start of the campaign a major reason they ended up in the Europa League in the first place. But he has been excellent through 2018 and decisive in each round of this competition, scoring the key away goal in the semi-final first leg and assisting Costa's clincher in the return leg against Arsenal.
That brings Griezmann to 29 goals and 15 assists for 2017-18, and you can see why even teammate Filipe Luis considers his €100m release clause a steal. Maybe winning a first trophy alongside the teammates with whom he has suffered so much in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals might make him decide to stay. But if he does leave this summer, he will at least go having delivered the team major silverware.
3. Pain for Marseille, and potentially for France
Tonight was Marseille's 19th Europa League fixture this season, and realistically this one was a step too far against an opponent ranked 44 places above them by UEFA at the start of the season.
Not that OM did not make a real go of it. Their fans made a real racket inside the stadium pre-game, smuggled-in flares and firecrackers included. The white and light blue majority were bouncing up and down throughout the opening stages, with their team quicker into challenges, and Valere Germain missing a great chance to really shock Atletico after just three minutes.
But then reality settled in -- with both Mandanda's pass and Anguissa's first touch just not of the standard for a major final. Payet soon succumbing to injury was another huge blow, as the France international was his team's most likely to magic a way through the super-tight Atletico defence. Conceding a second so soon after half-time realistically meant all was over bar the singing, which continued right until the end.
Marseille (ranked 46th by UEFA preseason) were aiming to be the first Ligue 1 team to win any European trophy since Paris-Saint Germain won the 1995-96 Cup Winners' Cup. In the end, they could not quite deliver what would have been a real boost for French football -- while Payet's injury could be a further problem for Les Bleus with the summer's World Cup now less than a month away.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan