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May 13, 2014

Europa League final historically charged

TURIN -- The Europa League final makes its way to Italian shores for the first time in its current guise this Wednesday, although the showpiece is tinged with disappointment for the host city. The Mayor of Turin has been trumpeting the slogan "scegli lo sport, sorrid!" (choose sport, smile!) in the build-up to the game, but Torinese grins are through gritted teeth. Hometown heroes Juventus -- the dominant force in Italian football for the past three years -- fell at the penultimate hurdle, a semifinal defeat to Benfica denying the Bianconeri a chance to extend their record haul of three titles in the competition.

Instead, it is Portuguese giants Benfica, along with Spanish outfit Sevilla, who now stand on the brink of history. Here are some key themes ahead of Wednesday's continental showdown.

Third Time's a Charm

Since winning the competition for a third time in 2001 with a thrilling 5-4 extra-time victory over Deportivo Alaves, Liverpool have stood alongside Juventus and Inter Milan as the most successful clubs in the history of the UEFA Cup/Europa League. The name Sevilla does not strike quite the same chords of lustre as that triumvirate, but the Andalusians now have the opportunity to add their name to the list.

- Jesus: Benfica are not favorites
- Yokhin: Jan Oblak -- Mr. Clean Sheet
- Rakitic: Sevilla geared for Europa glory

Sevilla's association with the tournament is rich, but also recent. Perhaps stirred by the 2005 Copa del Rey triumph of local rivals Real Betis, Sevilla awakened from a 58-year trophyless slumber to capture their first piece of European silverware in 2006. Middlesbrough were blown away in the final, with Freddie Kanoute capping a fine first season in Spanish football with the final goal in a thumping 4-0 victory in Eindhoven.

Twelve months later and Sevilla were back in the final and Kanoute back on the scoresheet; it was a more nervy affair, but Juande Ramos' side pipped Espanyol on penalties in an all-Spanish encounter to become the first team to win back-to-back UEFA Cups.

"They were two different finals," Kanoute recalls to ESPN FC. "The first one was a big surprise, the first time I won a title in my career and the first European trophy for Sevilla. The first one is of course special but the second one was even more enjoyable because if you win a competition for the second time you are confirming that the first time was not luck.

"The second time against Espanyol was a little bit more complicated. It was a team that knew us better from La Liga and so it was much more difficult, much more tense and that's why it went to a penalty shootout. I scored the first kick but it was Andre Palop, the goalkeeper, who was the hero. He had helped get us to the final of the competition after saving us in the round of 16. We were losing to Shakhtar Donestsk but he went up for a corner in the 94th minute and scored. It was quite unbelievable. Then during the penalty shootout in the final, he stopped a couple of penalties and we won.

"Both times, the celebrations were remarkable. Sevillan people are very warm and love to celebrate anyway, but to celebrate after winning trophies was very memorable. It was crazy, with the open-top bus parading. The fans were incredible and I have some great memories. I may be a bit biased, but I really hope that Sevilla can win their third title in Turin."

Restorative Powers

As Atletico Madrid have shown with their emergence as potential La Liga and European champions this season, the Europa League can act as a springboard to greater success. On winning the Europa League in 2012, Atleti boss Diego Simeone urged his players to savour the moment, and to repeat it. Instilling a winning culture laid the foundations for Atletico's return to the top table at home and abroad, and Sevilla will be looking to emulate such an evolution.

They have been there before, of course. Victory over Middlesbrough in 2006 spurred Sevilla on the following season to a Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup double, as well as Champions League qualification in what was the first of two third-place La Liga finishes in three years.

"Sevilla was not the same team before and after winning that first UEFA Cup," says Kanoute, whose post-retirement time is now devoted to supporting players with his own management company. "We managed to attract some new players and the team kept getting better. We were a little more feared in Europe and in Spain. The following season was great, we were second in the table for a really long spell but unfortunately Barcelona and Real Madrid had bigger and more experienced teams and they held the pace until the end. We didn't have such a big squad. The UEFA Cup helped bring our team to another level and then we played in the Champions League."

The good times were not there to stay, though, as retirements and departures -- including those of influential players such as Javi Navarro, Adriano Luis Fabiano and Kanoute -- saw the club's golden generation broken up. In 2010, after losing a Champions League playoff to Braga, Sevilla were back where they started in the Europa League.

The club continued to regress but after a ninth-placed finish last season, fortune appeared to smile on them again when Malaga and Rayo Vallecano were prevented from representing Spain in the Europa League for financial reasons. Sevilla stepped into the breach and a successful continental adventure breathed new life into the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and carried the team to the brink of a return to the Champions League via La Liga, before Athletic Bilbao narrowly pipped them to the final spot.

"You can see that their level has been improving all season," Kanoute continues. "One of the main reasons has been the momentum of the Europa League. They are playing a lot of games, and when you play more games, more difficult games, it opens up your skills, your tactical awareness, your confidence. They have certainly felt the benefit.

"It's important to remember that football is cyclical. You cannot maintain the pace unless you are Real Madrid or Barcelona because one day a couple of quality players will leave because they want to make it at a bigger club. Then the dynamic of the team changes and you have to try to adapt. It's diffiuclt for clubs like Atletico Madrid or Sevilla to maintain their level. I would love to see Atletico win La Liga this season because it would be very, very interesting for the competition. It's the same for Sevilla, we had a fantastic generation between 2006 and 2010. Of course some players leave and then you have to start from scratch almost -- it's very difficult to keep the same level."

Very Superstitious

It has been well documented, but impossible to ignore. Benfica are carrying an albatross around the neck as heavy as former striker Mats Magnuson. When the club lifted the European Cup in 1962 for a second year in a row, inspired by the great Eusebio, it was expected to be the start of a long, continental dynasty. However, when the Benfica board refused to sanction a pay rise to manager Bela Guttmann -- the man who masterminded both triumphs -- he left the club, with his parting shot a vow that they "won't win another European trophy for 100 years".

Fifty-two years on and that prophecy is being upheld. Benfica have had seven opportunities to win a European trophy since Guttmann's departure, but have lost every final they have competed in since. Benfica fans lay flowers at his grave and Eusebio himself even visited his old manager's resting place before the 1990 European Cup final to ask for the "curse" to be lifted. But AC Milan were victorious and Sven Goran Eriksson's Benfica side, just as they had done seven years earlier in the UEFA Cup final against Anderlecht, succumbed again.

Zoran Filipovic was Benfica's star turn in that UEFA Cup campaign -- finishing as top scorer in the competition -- but he says the "Guttmann Curse" was not spoken of in the dressing-room.

"When I was a player I didn't know about that, I only heard about it later," Filipovic tells ESPN FC. "I don't think it was given the publicity it has been now. But that is understandable to an extent, many more years have passed. It is incredible really, Portuguese people are naturally very superstitious so this is a big minus before every game, not only are you fighting the opposition but this history. This thinking brings greater pressure."

That pressure most recently manifested itself in last season's agonising Europa League final defeat to Chelsea, courtesy of Branislav Ivanovic's stoppage-time winner. It was one of three crushing defeats -- the others to Porto in their penultimate Liga game and a major shock at the hands of Vitoria Guimares in the cup final -- that turned a potential Treble into a trophyless campaign.

Now, though, Benfica are expected to toss away the shackles, with Filipovic claiming "there is no better chance for the curse to be broken," a sentiment echoed by manager Jorge Jesus in his prematch press conference ahead of Wednesday's showdown with Sevilla. Having already won the league and leage cup, Benfica are chasing an unprecedented quadruple.

"Most of the players don't even know that story, that's folklore," Jesus said. "We are going to have to break it. We could have done it last year, we have a chance again this year. What it does is motivate us further, it gives us greater strength, so we can lay rest to the ghosts of the 50 years without winning a European final. It's going to have to be broken, I hope tomorrow will be the time."

Balkan Blow

When Zoran Filipovic moved to Benfica in the early 1980s, he was not only the first Serbian to play for the club, but the first non-Portuguese European to turn out in the famous red strip. Fast forward 30 years and there are eight different nationalities represented in the Benfica dressing-room. Spearheading the club's charge for an unprecedented quadruple this season -- they have already wrapped up the league and league cup -- has been a pair of compatriots close to Filipovic's heart.

Including the now-departed Nemanja Matic, five Serbians have turned out for the Portuguese champions this season, though it is two in particular, Ljubomir Fejsa and Lazar Markovic, who have caught the eye. Unfortunately for Benfica, they will be without both for the Europa League final. While Fejsa -- out with a foot injury -- plays an important role at the base of the midfield as a Matic Mark II, it is Markovic's absence, through suspension after his sending off in the semifinal against Juventus, that is particularly hard to swallow. The playmaker, who boasts guile and dynamism in abundance, has been exceptional since arriving from Partizan Belgrade last year.

"There was no question that before Matic moved to Chelsea, he was the pick of the Serbian players," Filipovic tells ESPN FC. "He is one of the most fantastic players I've seen and now this year it has been Markovic. He is unquestionably one of the most talented players at Benfica at the moment and without him and Fejsa, it will be a major blow for Jorge Jesus.

"At first I wasn't sure about Benfica buying all these Serbian players as I worried they wouldn't play enough. But it is paying off for them. Their scouts have come many times to Serbia looking for the players and I spoke with them many times about the players. Benfica have made a good choice, those players are really talented; they are young and hungry. The Portuguese competition is good for these players. I think next season for sure they could be much better but there education is great at Benfica."

A silver lining to Benfica's Markovic/Fejsa-shaped cloud comes in the form of another impressive Serbian. Miralem Sulejmani has not always been a regular starter under Jesus this season but the former Ajax man appears certain to be thrown into action in Turin, where he made an eye-catching cameo against Juve earlier this month.

"Sulejmani truly is technically gifted," Filipovic says. "He can go past players, create goals and score goals himself. He is clever with the ball and has turned into a really good player, he's running more than before in both defence and attack. He has improved a lot and this is an exciting stage for him to show Benfica fans exactly what he can do."

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