Radamel Falcao at his best had few equals in European football. El Tigre, a nickname earned due to his predacious instinct in the penalty box and ferocity to attack crosses, tormented teams in continental competition.
Falcao first appeared on the radar of Europe’s top teams at River Plate, having signed for the Argentine giants from Lanceros Boyacá. At the former, the forward had debuted in Colombia’s second tier aged just 13, such was the regard in which he was held.
A glut of goals – a regular occurrence as his career progressed – saw inevitable European interest arrive and FC Porto agreed a deal to bring the Colombian to Portugal. At the Estádio do Dragão, El Tigre thrived and a return of 72 goals in 87 games brought both silverware and acclaim.
He scored a record-breaking 17 goals in the Europa League alone as Porto claimed the trophy in 2010/11, part of a historic treble under André Villas-Boas, form which earned him a €40m move to Atletico Madrid.
Atleti have had a long line of elite centre-forwards, but Falcao’s formidable best surpassed the feats of contemporaries Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa in the Spanish capital. He was magnificent and minacious, powerful, prolific and peerless.
Falcao spent just two seasons in Madrid, each unforgettable. His first saw him score 36 goals in 50 games, including 12 in the Europa League, a competition which had become his playground. His dozen strikes – including a brace against compatriots Athletic Bilbao in the final – saw Atletico crowned winners.
In the process he became the first player to win the competition consecutively with different clubs, while it was a success that set the stage for Falcao’s finest hour.
The UEFA Super Cup can be dismissed as little more than a glamourised friendly for those not taking part, but for the teams involved it is an occasion earned and a chance for more continental silverware. Atletico’s success in the previous season’s Europa League earned Diego Simeone’s side a date with Chelsea, at the Stade Louis-II in Monaco.
Chelsea had surprised to win the Champions League the previous season, but started as favourites in the principality. What had promised to be a tight affair proved anything but, with Falcao embarking on a rampage of centre-forward carnage.
From the outset Atletico swarmed Chelsea, the European champions unable to cope with the tempo the Spaniards set. Within the opening three minutes Falcao had hit the crossbar. Within six, he had opened the scoring.
Gabi’s slide-rule pass released the Colombian in behind Gary Cahill, with Falcao bursting in behind on the blindside of the Blues’ centre-back. Petr Cech rushed out to narrow the angle, but could do nothing as Atleti’s talisman confidently chipped into the far corner, the ball kissing the post before it crossed the goal-line. David Luiz’s desperate lunge was in vain, with Falcao’s finish placed – and weighted – to perfection.
His second arrived soon after and was, arguably, even better.
Neat inter-change saw Atletico pour forward once more before a pass found Falcao in space. A clever check inside freed the forward from the close attention of Ashley Cole, before a brilliant bending effort doubled Atletico’s lead. On his weaker side, Falcao left Cech with no chance, his effort curled deliciously past the goalkeeper’s out-stretched glove.
Falcao missed the chance to score his hat-trick after crashing a header against the post, but the South American was not to be denied. The match ball was claimed before half-time, as another clinical counter-attack undid Chelsea once more. Arda Turan’s pass freed Falcao, who strode past Ramires and slid his finish low through Cech’s legs. The contest was already over.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 9, 2022
Chelsea cannot say they were not warned. Just five days earlier Falcao had hit a hat-trick in a 4-0 thrashing of Athletic Bilbao. However this, even by his extraordinary standards, was something else.
El Tigre, striped in red and white, had devoured Di Matteo’s Chelsea, preying on the west Londoner’s defensive vulnerability. Falcao’s moniker had never appeared more fitting. Just like the big cat whose name he carried, he had gone for the jugular, a first-half blitz to kill Chelsea’s Super Cup aspirations.
Miranda added a fourth for Atletico on the hour, before Gary Cahill’s goal proved little more than Chelsea consolation. Atletico’s ensemble of attacking talent had played their part, but this was Falcao’s night, a defining night for one of the most dangerous centre-forwards of his era.
Falcao’s hat-trick saw his total in European competition increase to 37 goals in 40 appearances, a remarkable record which had resulted in back-to-back Europa League triumphs and Super Cup success.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 14, 2023
“What Radamel is doing is indescribable,” Simeone said at full-time.
“He’s a lad that, whenever you set the bar high, he responds by going even higher.
“I’ve known him since he was young and he’s always demanding. He thrives on pressure, he thrives on demands.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to enjoy him at Atletico for a long time.”
Sadly, for Simeone and Atletico, the long-time association he had hoped for failed to materialise. Falcao departed the club to sign for AS Monaco at the end of that same season, the scene of this triumph, as a Russian billionaire and ambitious project lured one of the game’s greatest goalscorers to Ligue 1.
He spent five seasons at Monaco, a period punctuated by unsuccessful Premier League loan spells at Manchester United and Chelsea as injuries saw his powers wane, but despite scoring almost a century of goals for the club, he never again produced a show-stopping Stade Louis performance quite like that night in 2012.
Chelsea’s centre-back pairing of Cahill and Luiz will hardly have had a tougher night at any point in their careers, unable to contain the Colombian who charged into space and finished with frightening ease.
It was the evening when El Tigre roared his loudest.