LYON, France (AP) — Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone knows his team must find a way to stop Marseille playmaker Dimitri Payet in Wednesday's Europa League final.
Payet is the French league's best passer and helped lead Marseille to its first European final for 14 years, with three goals and seven assists in the competition. So while Simeone highlighted multiple attacking threats in this Marseille team, he clearly views Payet as the most dangerous.
"Payet will set the pace according to how he sees the game. He will be dictating the pace of his team with his play-making," Simeone said Tuesday at a news conference. "Of course their free kicks and corners are dangerous, but they have many more weapons. Their full backs are also very dangerous."
While Madrid boasts big-name forwards in Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa, not to mention Fernando Torres and Kevin Gameiro on the bench, Marseille does not have a recognized top-class striker. Instead, a large chunk of the goals come from winger Florian Thauvin — 26 in all competitions — while the rest are shared around.
Marseille coach Rudi Garcia hailed Atletico as having the best defense in Spain, and is counting on Payet to breach it.
Payet thinks he knows how to.
"As is the case with any defense which plays so close together, we're going to have to move the ball around very quickly in tight spaces. But I think we have the attacking quality to do so," the France international said. "We're going to have to be very efficient because a team likes this does not give you many chances. We're going to have to take them."
Atletico are viewed as the favorites in this game, in part because of their recent big-game experience. Atletico won the Europa League in 2010 and 2012 but lost Champions League finals to Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016. Marseille is the only French side to have won the Champions League in 1993, but since then has lost twice in the UEFA Cup final, as the Europa League was formerly known.
But Marseille may have an advantage in playing just a three-hour drive away in Lyon, with up to 15,000 of its fans expected to make the trip.
"I want my players be calm. As we approach the game, the emotions rise and rise," Simeone said. "The winning and losing experiences we had in the past will help. ... We have to try and impose our style of play and take the game in the direction we want. We are similar teams so I think it will be a tense and high-pressured game. Both teams are very pragmatic and play a similar style. We're also strong on free kicks."
Simeone is known for being very close to his players, but he'll have to keep his distance on Wednesday.
He was banned from the touchline by UEFA earlier this month after being sent to the stands at Arsenal in the first leg of their semifinal in London. Simeone was charged with insulting a match official and improper conduct.
But he has full faith in assistant coach German Burgos, and considers his Argentine countryman almost like a kindred spirit. Simeone went as far as to say their understanding is close to telepathic.
"I'm very close to German. We've known each other all our lives and we have a similar vision of football," Simeone said. "What's going through his mind is doubtlessly going through mine. I have complete confidence in him."
Even though their coach will not be encouraging them from the sidelines, the players are ready.
"We'll give everything to win," center half Diego Godin said. "Our legs, our heads, our hearts."
Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire