While the astonishing goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have kept football fans on the edge of their seats this season, another prolific star has been busy building up some remarkable statistics of his own.
The player in question is none other than 26-year-old Radamel Falcao, Atletico Madrid’s Colombian attacker, who added to his growing reputation in Europe on Wednesday by scoring twice and putting in a memorable all-round performance as his club overcame Athletic Bilbao in the final of the UEFA Europa League in Bucharest.
The native of Santa Marta, who also netted the winning goal for Porto against Braga in last year’s final, not only made a key contribution to Atletico’s triumph – a repeat of their 2010 success in the same competition – but also finished as the tournament’s top scorer for the second year running, hitting the back of the net on 12 occasions during the campaign.
“Radamel had an extraordinary match; he was truly outstanding,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone after the 3-0 win. "He really propelled us to victory. I asked him beforehand to put his previous accomplishments out of his mind, and my goodness, that’s what he did. It’s going to be difficult to hang on to him next season."
“Scoring goals is in his blood – he came to Atletico to do it on a bigger stage,” added team-mate Juanfran.
In contrast to his colleagues, the South American forward made his feelings clear with his usual dose of humility. “It’s not every player that gets to experience this. I couldn’t be happier, and I’d like to dedicate this win to God, my family, my mother, my sister and all the fans of Atletico Madrid,” he said.
The Colombian’s perfect evening began in the sixth minute when, after receiving a pass from Diego down the right flank, he cut inside and curled a delightful effort into the top left-hand corner of the Bilbao net.
The quality of the finish took many in the stadium by surprise, but the powerful front man proved it was no fluke 28 minutes later, collecting a low cross, skilfully dragging the ball back to rid himself of his marker and smashing it past Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz from close range.
Intriguingly, neither goal was scored by what he regards as his stronger foot. “I don’t know what to say; I hit both with my left foot. My right was just there to support my weight,” he explained, laughing.
“Real Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona have Lionel Messi, and we have Falcao,” Simeone said to the press three weeks ago, after another goal from the former Porto player saw Los Colchoneros overcome Rayo Vallecano in La Liga.
The Argentinian, who can now celebrate securing his first-ever European trophy as a coach, knows exactly what he is talking about. Under Simeone’s guidance at River Plate, the man nicknamed El Tigre (the tiger) had already developed into a fine striker as part of the side that won the 2008 Argentinian Clausura championship, a campaign during which Falcao scored six times. From there, his prowess in the box would only improve.
After joining Porto, Falcao sharpened his eye for goal with each passing season, scoring 11 goals in 2009, 34 in 2010 and 39 in 2011, an impressive haul which included 17 in the Europa League. He then moved to Atletico, where, despite missing the club’s opening fixture of the campaign, he went on to net 52 goals in all competitions. Twenty-three of those came in the league, a total that currently places him third in the Spanish scoring charts behind Messi and Ronaldo.
As far as European matches are concerned, only the Barcelona man’s record of 14 UEFA Champions League strikes is superior to Falcao’s, although Mario Gomez shares his total of 12.
“When I arrived at Atletico, I made it clear that I wanted to make it to Bucharest and win the final. I’m very happy; very few players achieve this kind of thing,” he said with his arms aloft, clutching hold of the trophy, the flag of his country draped over his shoulders.
Many of his compatriots back home will be hoping that the marksman can bring about similar celebrations as Colombia strive to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. But that is a challenge for the future as, for the moment, Falcao appears content to have conquered Europe.