Sevilla not ready to step up

Sevilla’s failure to progress in the Champions League illustrates once again the gap between Spain’s very best and the rest, writes Mike Barnes.

The Champions League group stage reached its denouement this week and, in keeping with recent seasons, Spain’s top three sides all made it comfortably through to the tournament’s knockout phase. Sevilla, on the other hand, finished with a victory but said farewell to the competition.

Unai Emery’s men escaped a last-place finish in Group D with a 1-0 win over Juventus that at least gives them another crack at the Europa League, but the Coach was left to rue the missed opportunities and below-par performances from previous matchdays.

History will recall that Sevilla suffered four consecutive defeats in this season’s competition, book-ended by an opening 3-0 victory against Borussia Monchengladbach in September and Tuesday’s winning finale against Juve, but it was those four losses that characterised their campaign.

Emery’s side has struggled for consistency this season. Hard-fought home victories over Barcelona and Real Madrid were negated by sloppy defeats at lowly Las Palmas and Real Sociedad. To seriously challenge the big two, Sevilla must begin to put the lesser teams away in the manner Barca and Madrid routinely do.

In keeping with their stuttering form in La Liga, Sevilla have failed to be consistent in an admittedly strong Champions League group. The back-to-back encounters with Manchester City were pivotal, yet embodied the frustrating contradictions often displayed by Emery’s talented but fallible side.

Desperately unlucky to lose out to a last-minute City winner after dominating for long periods at the Etihad Stadium, Los Rojiblancos collapsed uncharacteristically in the return at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. As well as ending their 10-game unbeaten home European record, City’s emphatic 3-1 win gave Sevilla a mountain to climb in the group.

Unfailingly positive in publicly defending his team, Emery refuses to dwell on the disappointment of Champions League elimination, preferring instead to accentuate the positives. Current holders of the Europa League and winners for the past two seasons, the Coach has immediately turned his focus on winning that competition for a record third successive year.

Emery has created at Sevilla a side that plays exciting, attacking football. Even their defenders attack, with men like left-back Benoit Tremoulinas constantly pushing forward, sometimes leaving them vulnerable at the back. Midfield pair Steven N’Zonzi and Grzegorz Krychowiak offer further some balance, but the lack of a consistent and reliable target man is an issue.

Carlos Bacca was prolific during his two seasons with Los Nervionenses, which coincided with the club’s two Europa League triumphs. With 34 goals in 71 Primera Liga appearances, the Colombian striker also netted 14 times in 31 Europe and flourished alongside the dangerous but less reliable Kevin Gameiro.

Bacca’s successor, Fernando Llorente, made a slow start at Sevilla but scored the winner against his former club on Tuesday. Llorente also has a liking for the Europa League, having hit seven goals in 15 games in the competition to propel Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao side to the final in 2012.

The Coach has an effective and aggressive supply line at his disposal too. Ever Banega, Vitolo and Yevhen Konoplyanka comprise a potent attacking trio playing behind the striker and creating width. Ukrainian Konoplyanka in particular has excited crowds at the Sanchez Pizjuan with his ability to beat full-backs and supply teasing crosses to the striker.

Emery must blend this team of talented individuals into a powerful, cohesive and ruthless unit. Failure to do so will mean Sevilla continue to be regarded as a good Spanish side, masters of the Europa League, but forever falling short of being a great one.