Gabi: Falcao's the best finisher in the world
“Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps,” said Atletico Madrid captain Gabi, when asked if he could envisage himself holding aloft the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco on 31 August, the date of his team’s clash with UEFA Champions League holders Chelsea.
Back in May, after Los Colchoneros' victory over Athletic Bilbao in the UEFA Europa League final in Bucharest, his captaincy duties were still shared with team-mate Antonio Lopez, who had lead the capital side on to the pitch for many years. Following the defender’s exit from the club, however, the armband was passed to Gabi, whose many tasks now include hoisting any trophies won by the team.
“Because of the size and importance of the club, captaining Atletico is a huge responsibility," said the midfielder. "When things are going well, this is a marvellous club, but when that’s not the case, you have to deal with certain problems, and that helps you to mature – very quickly.”
The 29-year-old Spaniard’s firm commitment to the club has never been doubted by fans, but the path to his current position has not always been a straightforward one. After joining Atletico’s youth side and being part of the first-team squad for four seasons, Gabi’s career took him elsewhere.
“When you end up somewhere else, you miss the club a whole lot more and you dwell on what you could have done differently to avoid leaving it,” he said. In his four years with subsequent employers Real Zaragoza, he developed as a player and emerged as a leader of the team, but his principal desire was to return 'home', an outcome which was eventually achieved in 2011.
Gabi explained: "I came back with things very clear in my mind. I wanted to be involved in a lot of games, to become a key player and whether I made history or not, to somehow ensure that in the future, fans remember me with the same affection they currently show for great players that gave everything for the jersey. I’m working on it!”
The latter goal may not be that far off for Gabi, as following on from the Europa League success enjoyed by Diego Simeone’s charges earlier in the year, they now have the chance to add further silverware to their display cabinet. “Every footballer wants to compete for trophies," said the Madrid native. "Starting off the season by battling it out with a team like Chelsea for the Super Cup is pretty much a dream come true.”
Although the Spanish league calendar has forced Atletico to focus on domestic matters prior to the winner-takes-all encounter in Monaco, Gabi admits that it was inevitable that players’ minds would drift towards the Stade Louis II contest as the big day approached.
“People in the street only want to talk about one thing, and that’s Chelsea," he said. "For many fans, the season begins on 31 August, although for us it has obviously already started. You try to cut yourself off from all that, but it’s not easy.”
Falcao tribute, Torres reunion
Turning to the specific threats posed by the UEFA Champions League title holders, he stresses their physical strength, ability to play as a team and counter-attacking skills: “They’re so dangerous on the counter-attack. [Juan] Mata’s final ball is excellent, and with the pace of Fernando [Torres], they can cause you problems at any time.”
While Chelsea coach Roberto Di Matteo has recently made some significant signings in the shape of Eden Hazard and Oscar, Gabi does not believe that a clear favourite has emerged ahead of Friday’s match.
“They might well be a bigger name than us, but Atletico Madrid have earned respect all over Europe, especially in the last couple of years," insisted Gabi. "On top of that, we’ve got the best finisher in the world, Radamel Falcao, who’s lethal in the box.
"He’s already shown that he’s more than capable of handling these types of games by playing so well in the last two [Europa League] finals, when he practically won them single-handed. We’ll do our best to help him do that again. It’s going to be a tough match between two teams who are among the best in Europe at the moment.”
At the opposite end of the pitch, the night is likely to be of special significance for another high-profile striker, former Atleti star Fernando Torres, with whom Gabi rubbed shoulders at youth level and in the first team.
“We haven’t had that much contact since then, but I’ve got a lot of time for him, because we went through a lot together, and because he’s an Atletico great," said Gabi. "He’s already come out and said that it’ll be the most memorable game of his career, but hopefully things won't go his way this time.”
Torres is a man on form, with three goals in his last four matches for Chelsea, but Gabi is confident in his side’s chances, calling on his colleagues to recapture the spirit of Bucharest: “I’ve been reliving a few moments from the night, especially when I lifted the cup with my team-mates, and now all I want to do is to repeat that experience. I'm not picturing myself in any other situation.”
Will he be able to do just that on Friday? Along with other football fans the world over, we will have to wait and see.