As perverse as this may sound, in some ways last week was a good one for La Liga. In part that is down to a splendid set of basques, as perverse as that may sound. Channel 5 have gone from being mildly titillated by Athletic Bilbao to becoming engulfed in a full-blown affair, undergarments strewn all over the studio as they cast off English inhibitions to let their passions run free, at the risk of sounding like a scriptwriter for one of Richard Desmond's other publications.
As with all affairs – so I'm led to believe – there is anger too and Stan Collymore is not happy it's ended up like this. It's understandable that Stan has got the hump with the English – there he was stuck in a studio with Jim Rosenthal somewhere in a London basement while his counterparts on ITV and Sky larged it in Spain.
Channel 5 thought their perseverance with the Europa League, a competition that to a domestic audience rates somewhere below the Full Members Cup, had paid off when gifted with Manchester's joint failings in the Champions League. United and City's subsequent retreat from Europe, at a speed that would have excited John Major's Bastards, left Jim and Stan no option but to consummate things with Bilbao. After watching their defeat of Sporting Lisbon, Collymore lambasted this country's attitude to the Europa League, and he's got a point. In the days of the Uefa Cup and the Cup-Winners' Cup, a trophy Sir Alex Ferguson lifted twice, both were seen as events worth fighting for. It is a peculiarity that at a time when the English domestic game has never had so much foreign influence, a Little Englander attitude is attached to the Europa League.
Watching Bilbao on Thursday was a perverse act in itself after the Champions League but it's easy to see why Channel 5 has become so fond of them. In the final Athletic play Atletico Madrid, and that's why last week benefited the greater good of the Spanish league, demonstrating there is more to it than Real Madrid and Barcelona. The hold those two have on La Liga is not good for the long-term health of the competition – see the Scottish Premier League – and to have them out of Europe and others in a final is at least something.
For seasoned Euro watchers the game itself offered a classic contrast in styles. In one dugout sat Marcelo Bielsa, sporting a crumpled training top and tracksuit bottoms ample enough to house most of Barça's pint-sized line-up. Against him Ricardo Sa Pinto was sartorially in a different Europa League. This was Eurotrash chic; white pads on the elbows of his green-lined suit jacket, braces and long, slicked-back dark hair. It was Bilbao Baggins against Portugal's answer to Phil Brown.
Bilbao are fun to watch. Their football is bright and inventive but where it differs from Barcelona is in the physique of the players. Bilboa resemble a collection of upmarket Ted McMinns, skilful, big, unpredictable and never safe to take an eye off. They play as if life is worth living and never mind if it leaves your underwear exposed.
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