The Europa League is back this week and so are the holders. Sevilla are strong favourites to overcome Norwegian side Molde over two legs to progress into the last 16 and despite a strong field, the Andalusians have to still be considered the team to beat as they go looking for a historic 3rd successive triumph.
Sevilla’s love affair with Europe’s secondary club competition sees no sign of waning and there was a certain inevitability that they would end up back in it when they were paired with Manchester City and Juventus in an extremely tough Champions League group. They have won the trophy 4 times in the last 10 years but their enthusiasm for the Europa League is by no means universally shared.
The competition tends to attract its fair share of criticism and much of it is justified. The absurdly long format surely needs a reshuffle and even in this week’s 1st knock-out round it is likely we will see numerous weakened teams fielded with the final in Basel still a distant prospect. Attitudes vary but there are still a few clubs in Europe’s top leagues viewing it as more of an unwanted distraction than a competition they have their heart set on winning.
Teams that played in the 3rd Qualifying Round such as Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao. will have to play a staggering 19 games if they are to win the trophy. The addition of the eight 3rd placed teams from the Champions League at this stage also adds to its longevity and while it may strengthen the field, the general consensus across the football spectrum besides those at UEFA HQ in Switzerland seems to be that it rewards failure and devalues the competition.
Sevilla this time have benefited from the rule and you’ll struggle to find anyone connected with the club who has a bad word to say about the competition. In a domestic era dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, even a big Spanish club like Sevilla has precious few opportunities to win silverware and the UEFA Cup and subsequently the Europa League has given them purpose and helped forge their 21st century identity.
In the space of a decade, they have won it more times than any other club has managed in the tournament’s history. The Europa League is not a competition that is easy to win but Sevilla have certainly found the winning formula and other clubs across the continent, who rarely compete for domestic league titles, would be wise to take note.
Their first two wins in 2006 and 2007 came under the stewardship of Juande Ramos and certainly formed the blueprint for their more recent successes. Sevilla’s 2006-07 season in particular represents a firm repost to those who suggest it is impossible for a club without an enormous budget to achieve success on multiple fronts.
As well as defending their UEFA Cup crown and winning the European Super Cup and Copa del Rey, Ramos skillfully managed his squad to lead the club to a 3rd place league finish, their best in 37 years. Sevilla played 63 competitive games that season losing just 11 of them despite having a squad that wasn’t exactly packed with big names. Only Dani Alves has really gone on to top what he achieved with the Andalusians in that dream season.
Fairytale would turn to tragedy for Sevilla however just months about their UEFA Cup win in Glasgow. Antonio Puerta, the young academy graduate who had converted the winning penalty in the shoot-out win against Espanyol, suffered a cardiac arrest during a league game with Getafe and passed away in hospital 3 days later.
His tragic death at the age of just 22, shook the club to its core and when Sevilla reclaimed the trophy in 2014 by beating Benfica again in a shoot-out, memories of Puerta’s winning penalty from 7 years earlier came flooding back. It adds a sombre element to the club’s bond with this competition and there is unquestionably an emotional attachment to the Europa League in Seville that runs far beyond the desire to secure qualification for next season’s Champions League, which seems of greater importance to some clubs than actually winning the trophy.
That said the addition of a place in the following season’s Champions League for the winners was surely a good one. It has certainly acted as an added incentive for sides struggling in their domestic leagues and the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United could end up prioritising it over Premier League fixtures should they reach they real business end, which can only be good for the competition.
Throw into the mix the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Tottenham, Porto and Bayer Leverkusen and you have perhaps the strongest Europa League knock-out field in recent years and it’s virtually impossible to pick a winner. By contrast to the Champions League, where you’d stand a good chance of naming at least 3 of the 4 Semi-Finalists, there are perhaps as many as 20 teams who would consider themselves as having a genuine chance of going all the way to Basel.
Some of the lesser sides will take inspiration from Dnipro, who were beaten by Sevilla in last year’s showpiece so it could be a fascinating watch and anyone who opts not to take it seriously are likely to be sent packing fairly quickly.
Unai Emery’s men are highly unlikely to fall into that category. They have a squad to cope with the demands of two games a week as they’ve shown over the past couple of months by moving up La Liga while also progressing into the Copa del Rey final. Much like Ramos, the 44 year old has learnt the art of making changes to his side without necessarily weakening it and the case for Sevilla to win the Europa League again this year has to be considered as strong as ever.
Despite their mysterious winless campaign on the road in La Liga they have lost just 1 of their last 21 matches in all competitions. They now look a much more settled and all-round impressive unit than the side that exited in the group stage of the Champions League, when summer signings were still taking their time to bed in.
Since losing at home to Manchester City they have turned the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan back into a real fortress. Sevilla have racked up 13 successive home wins since then scoring 30 goals and conceding just 4. The ability to keep a home clean sheet is invaluable in this competition and their Copa del Rey success has demonstrated their aptitude for two-legged knock-out football is as strong as ever.
One concern may be up front. In previous years Emery was able to juggle the talents of Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro in this competition and would have a genuine goal threat, whoever he chose. With the Colombian gone, Gameiro has more than stepped up to the plate as Sevilla’s first-choice striker but they are a bit short of options in terms of a back-up or a player who can come off the bench and score crucial goals, which Gameiro had a knack of doing while he was playing second fiddle to Bacca last season. Fernando Llorente is supposed to be that man but has just 4 goals to his name in 25 appearances for Sevilla so far. They do though score goals from all over the the team with the likes of Yevhen Konoplyanka, who they signed from Dnipro, and Ever Banega providing plenty of ingenuity from midfield and also popping up with the odd goal.
Of course in knock-out football anything can happen and no team in world football is completely immune to a bad day. Up against such fierce competition, Sevilla may have a harder time going all the way and winning the trophy again but the way they are playing right now and given their strong bond with the Europa League, it is going to take a good side to stop them.