If Zlatan Ibrahimović’s defiance of the laws of physics with that overhead bicycle kick against England last month was the ultimate action in which separates himself from the rest as the world’s greatest striker at this moment in time, then Atlético Madrid’s Radamel Falcao deserves some recognition on a somewhat similar wavelength for what he has done since transferring from Portugal to Spain for £41 million. The Colombian striker has, whilst emerged in both Spain and Europe as a true out-and-out striker, a la Ibrahimović, been the centre of Diego Simeone’s highly impressive Atléti team, pushing for a return to the UEFA Champions League ahead of next season.
Atlético Madrid have not featured in the premier European competition since being cut adrift from qualification to the next round by Chelsea and FC Porto with a comprehensive 9-point gap between second and third place. Failure to claim victory in any of their three home fixtures during the group stage, including on the first match day where they were held by Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia, was further compounded by the fact that the three points they had garnered were all from drawn games.
They were considerably fortunate that their head-to-head results granted them a gateway into the UEFA Europa League, since their goal difference was far poorer (-9) than the team who would eventually finish bottom (-3). Abel Resino’s axe from the managerial role allowed for Quique Sánchez Flores to take over and eventually mastermind a trophy after all for the capital club. Whilst a lot of English football supporters will reminisce Fulham’s fairytale campaign in the Europa League with fondness – up until the final – their opponents were also decisively fortunate.
A 1-1 draw in Spain meant that Atlético Madrid needed a result in Turkey to qualify to the next round. Caner Erkin’s two yellow cards left Galatasaray a man short, and instigated a goal from Diego Forlán in the 89th minute to send the Liga BBVA outfit through. Similar fortunate had been ridden in the following knockout round tie when, once again, a draw at home made a mission of the return leg. Sergio ‘Kün’ Agüero’s double in Lisbon was enough, despite eventually drawing the game 2-2, Sporting Lisbon required another goal. They failed to comply and, therefore, Leões were eliminated.
For the third consecutive time would it be a requirement of los Rojiblancos to rely on the away goals rule for the promise of a semi-final clash against a troubled Liverpool under the stewardship of Rafa Benítez. It was fellow compatriot team Valencia that would stand in-between it and, after initially taking the lead through Diego Forlán, it was lost, won, and lost again when David Villa equalised for los Ché for the second time on that enthralling night. The second leg saw no goals for either side and, therefore, set up the clash between two Spanish tacticians of Flores and Benítez – one against the side he played at for a decade, the other squaring up against the very team he had held aloft two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup to boot.
Forlán laid down the groundwork in the first leg at Estadio Vicente Calderón after 8 minutes, and although they had been defeated in the second leg 2-1, Yossi Benayoun’s goal in extra time would be cancelled out by, a clearly in-form Uruguayan forward. Quique Flores’ men held out after departing both his main strikers in Forlán and Agüero, thus leading his Atlético side to the final. A heart-breaking Forlán winner in the 116th minute decided it. He had originally scored with the first goal of the game, but Fulham equalised not long after through Steven Davies and held on for the rest of the 90 minutes – it was only a matter of time before one of the two sides would capitulate both physically and mentally. Unfortunately for Fulham and Hodgson, it was them.
And now, somewhat fortunately or unfortunately (whichever way you look at it) the heroes of 2010 are long gone: Diego Forlán, after a successful FIFA World Cup in South Africa in which rewarded him with the FIFA World Cup Golden Ball award, now plies his trade in Brazil with Série A side Internacional. Sergio Agüero headed to Manchester alongside David de Gea, after he had a successful UEFA under-21 European Championship tournament in Denmark with Spain. Thought they did not both head for the same side, one to the blue half and the other to the red, one of the two has already made himself an iconic figure in the eyes of Manchester City fans with that goal on the final day of the 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season. United fans were left dejected to say the least.
Among others to leave were Simão (originally sold to Beşiktaş J.K., now at R.C.D. Espanyol), José Antonio Reyes (Sevilla), Paulo Assunção (São Paulo), Tomáš Ujfaluši (Galatasaray S.K., amusingly) and Álvaro Domínguez (Borussia Mönchengladbach).
At the same time as hoping Diego Costa’s transfer from then-Segunda División outfit Real Valladolid, as well as Adrián López from Deportivo La Coruña of the same division, would partially absolve the issues left behind by the respectively critical outgoing transfers, Radamel Falcao’s arrival from F.C. Porto last season creates a wholesome feeling in the attacking department. The 25 year old has made it abundantly clear in his performances since joining that he can perform in one of Europe’s strongest leagues and the 24 goals from 34 Liga BBVA games last season was created a considerably justifiable case. He has resumed that peak form into the 2012/13 season with 11 goals in 12 games. In fact, since the start of last season, Falcao has scored 56 in 74 in all competitions – 45.28% of Atlético Madrid’s league goals from last season, 37.93% from this campaign, averaging to a 41.6% total. It is quite an astonishing statistic, but however its purpose isn’t to regard Atléti as the archetypal ‘one-man team’.
He was afforded a formidably talented service behind him, built in the likes of Hulk, James Rodríguez, Fernando Belluschi and João Moutinho – altogether, they assisted 65 goals in all competitions throughout F.C. Porto’s 2010/11 season. And despite Hulk being the main star of the show with a scintillating season as a boisterous wide player, his accredited reputation came as an unorthodoxly powerful left forward whose left foot was incredibly deadly from long range and, as such would receive far more plaudits than his South American adversary with 36 goals in 53 appearances that season – it also rewarded him with a high-end transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg two seasons later, plying his trade in Russia in the build-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup to be staged in Brazil.
However Falcao does still warrant recognition in the same category as Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimović. For those who have the misfortune of not witnessing the UEFA Super Cup final between current UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League holders Chelsea and Atlético Madrid, it is distinctly advised that you find a suitable link and watch the highlights of it, or better yet, the goals that were scored by Falcao. Three of the five goals in that game were scored by him. And he still remains on a similar page to the Sweden forward – not down to his sheer importance to Simeone’s attacking plans, but taking into account the likes of how, where and when.
For someone who is less than six feet tall, he has a remarkable heading ability, with strength in his legs and lower body to leap above defenders and midfielders much taller and capable of reaching an aerial pass, whether in an attempt to find another player or is loose possession, than he is himself. 11 of the 42 goals overall he scored last season were with his head and 13 with his right foot, 7 with his left. For the majority he also scored in the last quarter hour or during the last fifteen minutes, and in fact 47.61% of them during 2011/12 were scored during those periods in all competitions.
Even this season there are examples: a hat-trick against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in the second game week of the Liga BBVA season – all three goals were scored just before the hour mark and his side would go on to win 4-0. A last-gasp free-kick in the 90th minute away to Real Sociedad maintained the streak of straight victories against an opposition that had picked up five yellow cards prior to the goal – Atlético Madrid went on to win the game 1-0. Their winning streak was stretched to seven, and their unbeaten to eight, when Falcao scored the third goal coming up to the last fifteen minutes in a home fixture to Osasuna, in spite of the opposition’s best efforts to revive a comeback when Roland Lamah scored just before half time.
So it is no surprise to anyone, certainly those who have now seen the statistics and records of the five-foot-eight forward, now being shortlisted for individual and team honours. It is no small wonder either how he has become almost level with perhaps one of the greatest strikers of his own generation, the star of the show in another capital in a different league. Soon, perhaps, Falcao will attempt to stun the world like his adversary with something audacious and spectators will be left stunned at how something of that calibre could be achieved. For the moment, “El Tigre” remains a striker in near-zenith form.