Young Williams leads Athletic to another Super Cup final

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — After scoring the most important goal of his young career, Nico Williams received a long hug from veteran forward Iñaki Williams, his older brother.

In the stands at the King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia, his relatives also embraced each other, unable to hold back tears.

Nico Williams and his big brother quickly went toward the stands to meet them after the final whistle.

It was a big moment for the Williams family, as Nico’s goal secured a 2-1 come-from-behind win over Atlético Madrid on Thursday and sent Athletic Bilbao into its second consecutive Spanish Super Cup final.

“I went to meet my mom, she was very moved, and I was as well,” the 19-year-old Nico Williams said. “She said I deserved it, told me to keep working hard. The hug with my brother was unforgettable for both of us. We had always dreamed about this moment.”

Nico Williams scored Athletic’s winner in the 81st after defender Yeray Álvarez had evened the match in the 77th. Atlético had taken the lead with an own-goal in the 62nd.

The Basque Country club will play Sunday’s decider against Real Madrid, which defeated Barcelona 3-2 in extra time Wednesday. Athletic won the title last year in a final against Barcelona in Sevilla.

It was yet another setback for Diego Simeone’s Atlético, which is enduring a poor run in the Spanish league and is unlikely to defend its title.

Nico Williams had scored his first two goals for Athletic in a Copa del Rey match last week. He and his brother, who is 27, are the only Black players in the club that traditionally only signs athletes from the Basque Country region. They were born in Spain from Liberian parents who fled war in Africa in the 1990s.

Athletic will try to win consecutive Super Cup titles for the first time. Its last triumph in the competition before last year was in 2015, when it also defeated Barcelona in the final.

Atlético was seeking its first Super Cup final since 2020, when it lost to rival Madrid in the first edition of the competition to be played in Saudi Arabia.

The Spanish Super Cup returned to the Middle East country after the coronavirus pandemic forced last year’s tournament to be played in Spain. The competition was moved to Saudi Arabia — and expanded from two to four teams in a “Final Four” format — as part of a deal reportedly worth 30 million euros ($34 million) a year until 2029.

The decision to play the Spanish tournament in Saudi Arabia drew criticism from human rights activists and fans who preferred the competition stayed in Spain. Among those complaining was Athletic midfielder Raúl García, who said during the week it made “no sense” to play the games away from Spain.

Both teams struggled in attack and created few scoring opportunities, in a stark contrast to Wednesday’s thriller between Madrid and Barcelona.

Atlético took the lead after Félix’s header from a corner kick hit the post and bounced off the back of Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simón and just barely crossed the line.

Athletic came close to equalizing two minutes later when Álvarez’s close-range header was stopped at the goal line by Atlético goalkeeper Jan Oblak. The defender didn’t miss in his second attempt, sending the ball into the corner and away from the Atlético goalkeeper.

Nico Williams scored the winner with a low shot from close range after the Atlético defense failed to clear a cross inside the area.

“We were doing well until their first goal,” Simeone said. “It was a deserved victory for them.”

Atlético lost midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia because of an injury early in the second half, and defender José María Giménez was sent off in stoppage time after his high kick inside the area hit the head of an opponent.

Atlético started the season well but has struggled recently. It lost four of its last six Spanish league games and dropped 16 points behind leader Madrid with a game in hand.

Athletic’s struggles in the league were worse, having won only two of its last 12 matches in the competition. It sits mid-table just past the halfway point.

Atlético qualified for the Super Cup as the Spanish champion, while Athletic made it as the Copa del Rey runner-up. It lost last year’s final to Barcelona.

Simeone had been tinkering with a few formations in attack but opted to start with Félix and Ángel Correa in attack, leaving Luis Suárez and Matheus Cunha on the bench. Both came into the match in the second half but didn’t contribute much.

There was a limited crowd at the 62,000-capacity King Fahd stadium because of restrictions prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

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