Sevilla have already secured a place in next season’s Europa League but reaching the final of this year’s competition against Benfica in Turin has been a mammoth achievement. Qualifying after last season’s ninth-place finish – thanks to the financial irregularities that led UEFA to ban Malaga and Rayo Vallecano from European competition – meant Sevilla began their Europa League quest last August.
Unai Emery’s men won 9-1 on aggregate against Montenegrin outfit Mladost Podgorica, a scoreline they immediately repeated in eliminating Slask Wroclaw of Poland. Sevilla then topped a relatively straightforward group containing Liberec, Freiburg and Estoril unbeaten before overcoming Maribor and sneaking past city rivals Real Betis on penalties.
A storming 4-1 win over Porto in the quarter-final after losing the first leg 1-0 in Portugal was followed by the narrowest of semi-final triumphs against Valencia. Trailing 3-0 at Mestalla after a 2-0 first-leg win, Sevilla’s luck appeared to have run out until Stephane Mbia popped up in stoppage time to take Emery and his men to Turin on the away goals rule.
Sevilla’s golden years of the recent era were crowned by successive UEFA Cup wins under Juande Ramos. The Andalusians won the competition in 2006, defeating Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0 in Eindhoven and repeated the feat a year later, overcoming Espanyol on penalties after a 2-2 draw at Hampden Park.
Los Nervionenses continued to finish high in La Liga and reached the Champions League last 16 in 2009-10, losing out to CSKA Moscow. They won the Copa del Rey that season too, defeating Atletico 2-0 in the final. Then, in common with most Spanish clubs, Sevilla stared financial crisis in the face and were forced to sell most of their players after finishing ninth in 2012-13.
The sale of Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas to Manchester City brought in a combined €40m as the club’s sporting director, Monchi – the man largely responsible for building Sevilla’s modern day success – deployed his extensive contacts to the full, signing 14 players ahead of the current season.
Unsurprisingly, even with experienced Coach Emery in charge, the team struggled and in September, with just two points from the first five games, they found themselves rock-bottom of La Liga. Spanish club hierarchies are not noted for their patience but President Jose Maria del Nido persevered with Emery, even after Sevilla crashed 7-3 to Real Madrid in October.
The turning point came in November, when Sevilla won 3-1 at Espanyol to finally end a 14-month streak without an away win. In their next game, Los Rojiblancos took the honours in a high-octane Sevilla derby, defeating Betis 4-0 at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and heaping misery on their neighbours, who by then were bottom themselves.
Games have come thick and fast and Emery rested several players against Getafe on Sunday ahead of tonight’s showpiece in Italy, which will be Sevilla’s 58th game of a marathon season. Playing a high-energy pressing, passing game, Sevilla have been exciting to watch, especially in the second half of the season when a run of nine wins in 10 games saw them climb to fifth in La Liga.
Frenchman Kevin Gameiro and Colombian international Carlos Bacca have hit 19 and 17 goals respectively in all competitions but Sevilla’s star has undoubtedly been skipper Ivan Rakitic. In addition to his 13 goals, the Croatian playmaker has been at the heart of everything good about Sevilla’s incisive and exciting attacking football – and all three are potential match-winners.
Win or lose tonight, Emery’s achievement in shaping a competitive if sometimes unpredictable team has been considerable. Defeat will be hard to take after such a long journey, but a win to complete a hat-trick of tournament triumphs will be well-deserved for Sevilla, as well as for their Coach and fans.