Atletico Madrid put the disappointment of their early Champions League exit behind them by winning Europa League for the third time. Diego Simeone’s men benefited from their transfer ban being lifted at the turn of the year, and with Diego Costa and Vitolo eligible to play, they defeated Arsenal in the semi-final before recording a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Marseille in the final. Arsenal made their debut on the competition for the first time in their history after failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Arsene Wenger, who would leave the club in the summer.
Arsenal, Atalanta, Fastav Zlín, 1899 Hoffenheim, İstanbul Başakşehir, Koln, Lugano, Milan, Ostersund, Real Sociedad, Red Star Belgrade, Vardar and Vitesse made their Europa League group stage debuts, though Milan and Red Star had participated in the UEFA Cup group stage previously.
AC Milan spent in excess of €185 million in the close season; as well as the coup of signing Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus - Andre Silva, Andrea Conti, Lucas Biglia, and Matteo Musacchio were brought in, while Franck Kessie and Nikola Kalinic were signed on loan with obligations to buy. Their exuberant spending would eventually see them punished by Financial Fair Play.
Four teams successfully progressed through the Europa League group stage without losing a match - Zenit, RB Salzburg, AEK Athens, and Atalanta. Atalanta were the most impressive team in the group stage, scoring 14 goals in a group that contained Premier League side Everton, who were demolished 5-1 by the Italian outfit.
Within the group stage, Arsenal and Real Sociedad recorded the biggest victories, defeating BATE and Vardar 6-0 respectively. It was a desperately poor performance from the German Bundesliga sides; Hoffenheim, Koln, and Hertha BSC were all eliminated at the group stage.
The knockouts saw elite teams drop down to the competition after being knocked out of the Champions League, including the likes of Atletico, Dortmund, Napoli, Celtic, and RB Leipzig.
It would be Napoli and Leipzig who would throw up one of the best matches of the last 32, as the German side progressed narrowly 3-3 on away goals.
In the last 16, Atletico solidified their favourites tag by destroying Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1 over two legs while Arsenal, despite suffering a torrid time domestically, gained some respite from their fans after knocking out Milan 5-1 on aggregate. Elsewhere, RB Salzburg impressively eliminated Dortmund.
I think he (Simeone) is the best tactical and defensive coach in the world and he shows that year in, year out. He identifies every player's weaknesses and tries to improve them, making you a more complete player.Antoine Griezmann
The quarter-final stage was one of the most entertaining in history, with an incredible 31 goals scored over the four two-legged affairs. Salzburg continued to make waves, and in this round knocked out Lazio 6-5.
At the business end of the competition, the draw threw up Marseille versus Salzburg and Atletico versus Arsenal.
Marseille and Salzburg could not be separated after 180 mins and penalties looked inevitable but Rolando made himself a hero for the Ligue 1 side by scoring in the 116th minute, to clinch victory for the French side, 3-2.
Arsenal will look upon their semi-final against Atletico as a missed opportunity, as the Gunners passed up a number of chances at the Emirates Stadium, having to settle for a 1-1 draw. In the second leg, the Colchoneros displayed all their experience, with Diego Costa scoring the clinching goal.
The final took place at Parc Olympique Lyonnais with Atletico going in as favourites. Marseille, looking nervous at the back, gifted the Spanish outfit the lead when Zambo Anguissa lost possession to Gabi, who threaded a pass through for Antoine Griezmann to open the scoring. Things went from bad to worse for Marseille as their inspirational captain, Dimitri Payet, was forced off with an injury which would also see him miss the upcoming World Cup.
Diego Simeone’s men took advantage of Marseille reeling from Payet’s absence, and went on to comfortably win 3-0, with Griezmann getting another and Gabi scoring in what proved to be his last appearance as captain of Atletico.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Even though Atletico didn’t play in the group stage, the Frenchman still found himself just two goals behind the top scorers. His worth was proved in the final.
CIRO IMMOBILE, ARITZ ADURIZ - 8 GOALS
TEAM OF THE SEASON
OBLAK; BONUCCI, GODIN, SARR, LAINER; GABI, BRUNO FERNANDES, SAMASSEKOU; GRIEZMANN, PAYET, IMMOBILE.
GOAL OF THE SEASON
PAYET exchanges a one-two with Thauvin before moving into the penalty area with a stepover and finishing with a lovely strike with the outside of his right foot.
KEY MOMENT OF THE SEASON
Payet’s injury in the final meant Atletico needed no encouragement to push on, while Marseille were crestfallen.