28th April 2016. By Greg Lea.
When the draw for the semi-finals of the Europa League was made a fortnight ago, the majority of Liverpool fans reacted well to being paired with Villarreal. Shakhtar Donetsk, another potential opponent in the last four, had impressed in defeating Schalke, Anderlecht and Braga in previous knockout rounds, with many Reds supporters also pleased to dodge Sevilla, the defending champions who have triumphed in the competition twice in the last two years.
A glance at the La Liga table would suggest the confident reaction to the draw may have been misplaced, however: Villarreal have amassed nine points more than Sevilla this year and, if you share the common belief that the table never lies at this late stage of the season, are thus a better team than Unai Emery's side. Rather astonishingly, Sevilla have still not won a single game away from home in the league, with just two matches left for them to rectify that record as they attempt to seal a top-six finish in Spain.
There is a justified feeling, though, that Sevilla are an excellent cup side who know exactly what it takes to win the Europa League. The club's first taste of success in the continent's junior competition came in 2005/06, when Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough were thrashed 4-0 in the final in Eindhoven; Sevilla then retained their crown the following year, overcoming fellow La Liga outfit Espnayol in a penalty shoot-out after a 2-2 draw at Hampden Park.
Their next triumph came in 2013/14 under current boss Unai Emery. Sevilla, in truth, were fortunate to even qualify for the tournament: in an ordinary season, their ninth-place finish in 2012/13 would not have been enough, but Malaga and Rayo Vallecano were both banned from Uefa competition and could not take part, so the Rojiblancos went through to the third qualifying round in their place.
Montenegrin club Mladost Podgorica were duly thrashed 9-1 on aggregate to set up a play-off tie with Slask Wroclaw, which Sevilla also won by the same sizeable margin; they then topped a group containing Freiburg, Estoril and Slovan Liberec, before beating Maribor, Real Betis, Porto, Valencia and Benfica to get their hands on the trophy once more.
Emery's charges were among the favourites to scoop the prize again in 2014/15, which is exactly what they went on to do by winning an entertaining final against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-2 in Warsaw. Sevilla emerged victorious from seven of their eight knockout matches prior to the final, with Borussia Monchengladbach, Villarreal, Zenit St Petersburg and Fiorentina all defeated on route to glory.
That triumph earned Emery's side a place in this season's Champions League, but finishing behind Manchester City and Juventus in their group saw them drop down to Europe's secondary tournament for the start of the knockout stage. A 3-1 aggregate win over Molde in the round of 32 set up a meeting with Basel in the last 16, with Sevilla winning out 3-0 over two legs. They then squeezed past Athletic Club on penalties to book their place in the last four, where Shakhtar Donetsk stand between them and yet another appearance in the final.
Given Sevilla's track record in the competition in recent years, then, it is understandable that followers of Liverpool were keen to see their side avoid the four-time champions in the draw for the semi-finals. They may only be seventh in La Liga, but there is something about the Europa League that brings out the best in Sevilla, who are looking to become first ever team to win the tournament three years in a row.
Can Sevilla Win their Third Consecutive Europa League Title?
28th April 2016. By Greg Lea.