Three Things: Sevilla vs. Benfica
After 120 tense minutes in Turin, Sevilla claimed their third UEFA Cup/Europa League title in nine years, beating Benfica 4-2 on penalties. Here are three quick things from the Europa League final...
1. Falling at the final hurdle... again
And so the jinx continues. An eighth European final came and went for Benfica, leaving one of the world's most storied clubs still without a continental title since their twin European Cup triumphs in 1961 and 1962. Back then, it was Barcelona and Real Madrid who were vanquished. On this occasion, Benfica's conquistadors were conquered by a Spanish club.
To make matters worse, it was a Portuguese, ex-Porto goalkeeper who was the hero. Beto saved spot-kicks from Rodrigo and Oscar Cardozo to join Andre Palop, who achieved the same shootout feat as Sevilla won the competition in 2007, in the Andalusian annals. Fittingly, the man who converted the key penalty was substitute Kevin Gameiro -- Sevilla's top scorer in the Europa League this season.
- Report: Sevilla win Europa League on penalties
A domestic Treble still awaits Jorge Jesus' domestic champions but it will be scant consolation. Picking his players up from such despair in time for a Portuguese Cup final against Rio Ave appears a truly unenviable task but if anyone is capable, it will be the man who took end-of-season catastrophe twelve months ago -- Benfica imploded as League, Cup and Europa League trophies fell by the wayside -- and transformed his players into winners again.
As remarkable a defeat as it was for Benfica -- heavy favourites in the eyes of many -- Sevilla's story is equally as astounding. Only handed a place in this season's competition because of financial mismanagement at Malaga and Rayo Vallecano, parallels can be drawn with Denmark's 1992 European Championship triumph, their path to glory seemingly written in the stars.
Now, last season's ninth-place side in La Liga stand as continental champions, exactly nine months after beating Montenegrin side FK Mladost Podogorica in the first leg of a third qualifying round. They are European record holders, too -- this third UEFA Cup/Europa League title puts them on a par with Liverpool, Juventus and Inter Milan.
2. Defence the best form of attack
The word "attrition" certainly came to mind at the Juventus Stadium as Sevilla and Benfica traded blows and defensive blocks for 120 gruelling minutes. Playing in the shadow of the nearby Alps, both teams were able to call on veritable man-mountains at the heart of their back four. Brazilian Luisao patrolled alongside Ezequiel Garay for Benfica, while Argentinean Federico Fazio stood tall next to the similarly imperious Nicolas Pareja for Sevilla.
Fazio, then in Sevilla's B-team, watched on from the stands when the club last won the competition in Glasgow in 2007. This time, though, the Andalusians' victory owed much to his dominance. Few have managed to keep Lima and Rodrigo at bay this season and his achievement was made more impressive when considering he was booked early in the first half.
His opposite number in size and style, Luisao had previously highlighted "humility" and "work ethic" as the central tenets behind Benfica's miserly defence. Those qualities were evident again as Benfica kept their sixth clean sheet in nine Europa League games this season. A gentle giant off the pitch, he had admitted to "feeling butterflies" ahead of the final but kept his cool in the penalty shootout and was nerveless a the back throughout for his team. At one point he magnificently tackled Gameiro on the halfway line, preventing what would have been a clean run through on Jan Oblak's goal with just two minutes left in extra-time.
Last-ditch tackles were dime a dozen; Guilherem Siqueira twice denied Carlos Bacca in dramatic style with desperate lunges and Nicolas Pareja strained every sinew to deny Lima. A 0-0 draw was hardly the perfect advert for a competition long considered the Champions League's ugly sister but football cannot always provide breathtaking beauty. Sevilla boss Emery is a renowned fan of chess; for him, such a narrow victory at the end of such a tit-for-tat defensive duel would have been particularly satisfying.
3. Rakitic's Reputation
In a midfield that comprised two players on-loan from the English Championship -- QPR's Stephane Mbia (QPR) and Reading's Daniel Carrico -- Sevilla captain Ivan Rakitic was truly a rose among two thorns. The Croatia playmaker, who is thought to be able to count Manchester United, Liverpool and PSG among his suitors, was the man from whom Sevilla sought stimulation during a cagey encounter in Turin.
Gliding across the turf, Rakitic's penetrating runs and impressive vision made Sevilla tick in attack. In the first half, there was a slick ball across the box that narrowly eluded an offside Carlos Bacca. Then, shortly after the interval, an imaginative dinked through-ball found Jose Antonio Reyes but the forward -- a two-time Europa League winner with Atletico Madrid -- couldn't find a finish that may have helped him add a third title to his name.
As Sevilla poured forward in the first 25 minutes of the second half, Rakitic -- described by his coach Unai Emery as a "great leader" -- was the man to dictate play. Emery's side had wave after wave of set-pieces during that period and the skipper was on the spot to plant the ball down each time, changing up deliveries between long and short as the Andalusians probed at a Benfica backline that had previously proved impenetrable on their last visit to the Juventus Stadium in the semifinals.
Rakitic spoke before the game of how he "didn't want to dream" about lifting the Europa League trophy; Sevilla fans would surely forgive him for fantasising about a move to a bigger club. He also claimed that "football is not about a single player, a single hero" but there is no doubt it would present a major problem for Emery if he were to lose Jesus Navas and Rakitic in successive summers.
Despite claiming the Europa League, Sevilla's narrow failure to secure Champions League football next season -- a fifth-placed finish saw them pipped by Athletic Bilbao -- could well cost them to the tune of one Croatian captain.