Reuters - Fri, 30 Apr 08:40:00 2010
If you had asked Spanish fans which of their sides would be the only one to reach a European final this season few would have picked Atletico Madrid.
Atletico, however, did just that as they progressed to the Europa League final on the away goals rule despite a 2-1 extra time loss to Liverpool in their semi-final second leg at Anfield on Thursday.
The 2-2 aggregate draw handed Atletico the chance of a first European trophy in almost 50 years while their more illustrious compatriots Barcelona and Real Madrid concentrate on the La Liga title after their Champions League exits.
Even Atletico manager Quique Sanchez Flores was surprised by his team's achievement.
"No one would have expected it. It is an honour and a great sense of satisfaction to be the sole representative of Spain in Europe," a glowing Flores said at Anfield.
Atletico are 10th in La Liga after a dismal start to the season but they have negotiated their passage to the Europa final with just two victories from eight matches following their elimination from the Champions League group stages.
"I think I've not known too many better moments (in my career). Seeing where we have come from, we were pretty low earlier this season," Flores said.
"I think we have done really well. Three big tests, Turkey, Lisbon and Valencia and we have replied well. Today we got stronger as the match went on and over the two legs I think we deserved to go through."
A stronger second half to the season has left Atletico chasing a cup double.
"I have no words to describe the atmosphere in the dressing room" Flores said. "They were like a bunch of school kids, they have so much pride to wear the shirt. The moment when we went over to the fans after the game was so special."
The Spanish side will start as favourites against Fulham as they look to end a long wait for European success.
The Spaniard's last continental trophy was the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1962, which they narrowly failed to defend the following year when they lost to Fulham's city rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the final.