Flying Radamel Falcao sees stock rise even higher after Europa League success
Next step is surely the big league for striker who scored twice in Europa final, but will it be with Atletico Madrid or will other suitors gather?
Friday 11 May 2012
It turned out, then, that the tiger won the fight with the lion. "El Rey Leon", Fernando Llorente, who may well lead Spain's attack into Euro 2012, and his Athletic Bilbao side were forced to take a back seat in the Europa League final to an Atletico Madrid side led by "El Tigre", Radamel Falcao. Where this competition is concerned, Falcao is the undisputed king of the jungle.
In successive seasons, the 26-year-old has managed to make the extraordinary into an almost regular occurrence. His seventh-minute rocket into the top corner in Bucharest's stunning National Arena was reminiscent of his solo effort in the semi-final first leg that knocked the stuffing out of Valencia. His second, just after the half-hour, took his total to 29 goals in as many games spanning two Europa League campaigns.
The stats are no mere window dressing; Falcao has frequently scored when it counts, including the winner for previous club Porto in another one-nation final, against Braga, last year in Dublin. "Scoring a goal in a final like that is something that marks you," he said of his 2011 winner before this year's final, adding none too convincingly that "it doesn't matter who scores, as long as we win".
In terms of creating history, it mattered. As well as securing Atletico's second Europa League title in three years, the double strike against Athletic ensured Falcao was the first player to top the competition's scoring chart in successive seasons. If he had drawn a blank and finished level on 10 with Schalke's Klass-Jan Huntelaar, the Dutchman would have won the title thanks to having played fewer games in the competition.
Though he may be feted for the 17 European goals last season that broke Jürgen Klinsmann's 15-goal competition record (set in 1996), Falcao's potency is not restricted to the Europa League. Following his €40m (£35m) move to Madrid in August, he has now scored 35 times in all competitions for the Rojiblancos. It's little wonder he was recently described by Barcelona's Pep Guardiola as "the best forward in the world in the penalty box".
He arrived at the Estadio Vicente Calderon as a big-money, Sergio Aguero replacement for a club perpetually stricken with debt. He had to overcome some early obstacles in the Spanish capital, not least that of unfavourable comparison with his Argentinian predecessor. Like Huntelaar, Falcao has been criticised in the past for "only" scoring goals. Aguero dropped deep to create when the chips were down, whereas the more predatory Falcao is beholden to the right service.
Fellow South American Diego immediately eased the problem of supply after arriving on loan from Wolfsburg, with the Brazil international creating a goal for Falcao three minutes into his European debut for Atletico against Celtic in the group stages. Factor in the Turkey winger Arda Turan slowly settling into his first season abroad (he created Falcao's second in Bucharest), Adrian Lopez's tireless work out wide and the forward raids of converted winger Juanfran from right-back, and all of a sudden the possibilities are augmented.
Falcao's famous nickname is partially informed by his extraordinary aerial prowess – despite standing at a relatively modest 5ft 10in – but his goals in Bucharest showcased his versatility. "Tonight the goals were with my [weaker] left, and my right was just for standing on," he grinned after the game.
The impetus to improve comes from an uncommon humility. Falcao left Colombia as a 15-year-old to join River Plate, but has never forgotten his roots. A devout Christian who met his Argentinian wife at his local evangelical church in Buenos Aires, he has invested heavily in projects to help disadvantaged children in his native country.
Striding into the National Arena's press room with the 15kg trophy, Falcao acknowledged his faith, but the normally mild-mannered forward also had a riposte for the doubters. "Some people said that it was a mistake that I came to Atletico," he said. "Now I can say that those who criticised me, they made the mistake and this was the best way to show that."
This was a dig at the Porto president, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, who chided Falcao as unambitious. "His choice wasn't to go after titles; it was to go after money," he said in January. It's quite a compliment when you consider the spurned Pinto da Costa also accused Andre Villas-Boas of being "scared of the ghost of Mourinho" for choosing Chelsea ahead of leading Porto back into the Champions League.
Diego Simeone's arrival as coach also motivated Falcao after a slow start, not just in generally improving Atletico's prospects but in converting the team to a more pragmatic style, based on swift transfer of possession from back to front – not wholly unlike Villas-Boas's Porto, in fact.
Had things worked out for the Portuguese in London, coach and striker might have been reunited at Stamford Bridge. Villas-Boas made little secret of his plan to bring the workaholic Falcao to Chelsea.
The question now is: when will Falcao get a shot at the competition's big brother? It's difficult to imagine he won't taste Champions League football soon – with Atletico or someone else. The Rojiblancos can still get there going into Sunday's final La Liga match at Villarreal. "I'm only thinking about Sunday at the moment," he added. The biggest celebration for Atletico fans could be yet to come – especially if it leads to their iconic No 9 staying at the Calderon.
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