Fresh from overseeing Sevilla taking a seemingly commanding three-goal lead into the second leg of their Europa League semi-final with Fiorentina, Rojiblancos Coach Unai Emery is being heavily linked with taking the reins at another Italian giant - Milan.
The Rossoneri are in disarray under the current regime led by Milanese legend Pippo Inzaghi and have recently slipped into the bottom half of Serie A, 20 points adrift of the covered Champions League spots and a remarkable 36 points off champions Juventus.
Emery’s stock continues to rise at the Andalusians and he could yet take them to a second successive Europa League title. He has established Sevilla as a top five club in La Liga - despite a modest budget in comparison not just to Barcelona and Real Madrid, but even when stood up against those of Peter Lim’s Valencia and Atletico Madrid.
Last Saturday’s loss at the hands of a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan was their first home defeat in 14 months in any competition – stretching back to a 0-2 defeat at the hands of rivals Real Betis in the Europa League in March 2014 [a tie which they would turn on its head the following week down the road].
Even though that result may damage their chances of catching Valencia for the fourth and final Champions League spot, the fighting qualities and never-say-die spirit of the hosts epitomised the qualities of Emery’s men and will give them great heart.
They trailed 0-2 and 1-3 to Ronaldo’s and Madrid’s genius but at the end Carlo Ancelotti’s men were clinging on for their triumph. It was a game remarkably similar to that of the previous month, where Los Rojiblancos came from 0-2 down to rescue a point against a rampant Barcelona, and thus opening up La Liga’s title race once more.
The performances and team ethic are testament to Emery’s phenomenal work-rate. The manager admits to being a pesado - hard working, constantly thinking, often to the point of irritating those around him. Watch him on the touchline and he won’t sit still, constantly pacing his line and reacting to every decision. His energy transmits onto the pitch and it excites the fans, who are amongst the most passionate and loyal in Europe. Emery and Sevilla feel like the perfect fit.
The 43-year-old now has over a decade in management. Starting off at Lorca - whom he guided to the second tier, narrowly missing out on promotion to the top flight - Emery moved to another Andalusian side, Almeria, where he did achieve promotion to La Liga, a first for the club. Again overachieving, they finished eighth the following year before Valencia offered him the management job.
Los Che where in an odd situation - traditionally they had been the country’s third-best side but were such a long way off the traditional top two, and sailing into a sea of financial woe, it was hard to measure what success would be. In his four seasons on the east coast Valencia finished sixth, third, third and third. Restricted by the sale of star players David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata, they never came close to another La Liga title.
The one clear failure of Emery’s coaching career came at Spartak Moscow, where he spent an unhappy six months before being sacked. Sevilla offered him another chance in his homeland, and he has so far led the club to a string of fifth place finishes and made them a dominant force in Europe’s secondary competition.
This is largely seen as a big success, especially when achieved alongside the sales of Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Alberto Moreno and most of all, Ivan Rakitic - the heartbeat of the side.
The football isn’t always easy on the eye. Emery’s obsession with tactics, adaptation and work rate makes him more pragmatic than most. Another criticism is the results against his nearest rivals. Their home record is strong but their away form is more dubious - and they’ve suffered heavy defeats at both Madrid sides and Barca, with other reverses coming in Valencia and to Basque pair Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
Earlier this year the Coach described Sevilla as his ‘perfect’ club. The relationship with the sporting director is strong while both fans and players alike seem to buy into his methods. That was never really the case in Valencia where doubts were rarely far away. The fans thought he failed to replace the flair players and his squad never bought into his techniques - which included an individual pen drive to take home after training.
The expectations in Andalusia’s capital are perhaps slightly lower, and his strengths are shown greater appreciation. A move to Milan could produce all those doubts again. A different culture, a different group of players in a different League - where the tempo and intensity aren’t precisely in line with Emery’s. And he doesn’t speak Italian.
The Milan job isn’t without its positives - expectations are relatively low, funds to strengthen the squad are available and while Juve are head and shoulders above the rest, two strong transfer windows could see them propelled into the top three again. That aside, could his Europa League success be replicated in the north of Italy?
One thing is for sure - whether it be piping his old side Valencia to fourth or winning the Europa League again, Sevilla would be back into the Champions League and it would be a place that no side would want to visit. Would Emery be willing to gamble away his ‘perfect’ club if he believes he’s taken them as far as he can?