23rd April 2016.
A year ago, Sevilla FC made history by becoming the first football club ever to win the Europa League four times. Equally remarkable, the win marked the second time that Sevilla had won back-to-back UEL titles, as the team had won their first three titles in 2006, 2007, and 2014, respectively. Now, with just four teams left standing in Europe's secondary club football competition, Sevilla are looking to make history once more, by winning the tournament for a third time in a row.
Already, Sevilla is the only team ever to win two Europa Leagues back-to-back, and they've done it twice. If any team is going to win three in a row, it's only fitting that the Red and Whites would be that organization.
The Semi-Final Draw
Not that Sevilla has the easiest path to the top of the podium. Competition is heating up in the 2015/16 Europa League-to the point where the Red and Whites only just narrowly secured their spot in the semi-finals. Indeed, after a 1-2 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the second leg of the quarterfinals, Sevilla had to win a penalty shootout 5-4 to break the 3-3 aggregate tie and ensure advancement.
Also making it into the semi-finals are England's Liverpool FC, Ukraine's FC Shakhtar Donetsk, and Sevilla's La Liga opponents Villarreal. Sevilla is drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk while Liverpool and Villarreal will face off for their shot at a finals slot.
Liverpool Scores an Upset
Sevilla eyeing a third straight Europa League title is a big story and could well prove to be the dominant narrative arc of this year's UEL tournament. However, during the quarterfinals, at least, Sevilla's story got upstaged by a different narrative.
Indeed, the match-up of the quarterfinals-and very likely, the match-up of the 2015/16 Europa League as a whole, was the battle between Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool. As always, the draw for the quarterfinals was random. However, you could hardly have scripted a better encounter than the one between the Black and Yellows and the Reds, between Jurgen Klopp's old club and his current one.
A year ago, Jurgen Klopp resigned his post as Borussia Dortmund's head coach, after a dismal season that saw the historically stable club finish seventh in the German Bundesliga. In fact, BVB even spent a fair amount of time at the very bottom of the table last season, before turning things around and surging back into contention for European qualification (and nearly winning the title in the DFB Pokal).
This season, under the leadership of Thomas Tuchel, the Black and Yellows have made a resounding comeback. They'll likely finish second in the Bundesliga-though there is a non-zero chance that they could still score an upset against Bayern Munich and win the league. Unfortunately for fans of the soccer club, though, there is one trophy that Dortmund definitely won't be snagging and that's the 2015/16 Europa League.
In many ways, Borussia Dortmund have looked like the frontrunners of the Europa League this season-like the team that was going to put an end to Sevilla's reign at the top. The football club had a middling group stage performance but had looked near unstoppable ever since. Indeed, despite some of the toughest draws in the entire knockout stage, the Black and Yellows won all of their games in the rounds of 32 and 16. In the round of 32, they crushed Porto 3-0. In the round of 16, they made Tottenham Hotspur-who have been stellar in the Premier League this season-look like amateurs, with a 5-1 aggregate win.
Then came the quarterfinal draw. As if by fate, Dortmund were drawn against Liverpool, where Jurgen Klopp took over as manager last October after a brief sabbatical. Because Klopp's turn at Anfield hasn't been quite as successful as Tuchel's has at Signal Iduna Park, many expected the renowned German manager to be bested by his former club. Liverpool's 2015/16 Europa League record leading into the quarterfinals-two wins and four draws in the group stage, a small victory over Augsburg in the round of 32, and an upset of Manchester United in the round of 16-hardly compared to Dortmund's blowout wins.
Ultimately, though, Liverpool surprised everyone. In the first leg, the Reds neutralized Dortmund's home-field advantage by scoring first and forcing a 1-1 stalemate. The second leg, meanwhile, quickly turned against Liverpool despite their home field advantage, with Anfield fans watching in horror as their soccer squad fell behind 0-2 in the first 10 minutes of play. It looked like the match was over before it had even really gotten started.
The Reds scored a goal just after halftime, but Dortmund added a third at the 58-minute mark in what seemed sure to be the final nail in Liverpool's coffin. After all, how could Klopp's side hope to score the three goals necessary to win the game and the semi-final slot when they only had a half hour left to play? Even two goals would have sent the club packing based on the away goals rule.
Then, somehow, Liverpool really did score three goals unanswered. Starting with a 66-minute goal from Philippe Coutinho, the Reds went on the warpath to dismantle Dortmund's lead and win the game. A 77-minute corner from Coutinho gave Mamadou Sakho the chance he needed to score an equalizer while a header from Dejan Lovren in stoppage time put Liverpool in the lead for the first time in the match. It was a last-minute save, but it was enough to earn Liverpool a spot in the semi-finals and to give Klopp a miraculous victory over his former club.
Predictions for the Semi-Final
After a win like the one Liverpool enjoyed against Borussia Dortmund, it would almost be wrong for any other team to win the Europa League this year. That game was easily one of the most exciting matches in the history of European competition. It will give Liverpool momentum heading into the semi-final round, which could be enough to get them past Villarreal. If the Reds do make it to the finals, they will be playing for a chance to tie Sevilla's record of four Europa League titles.
Villarreal has done well so far, winning four of their six group stage matches, eliminating a promising Napoli team in the round of 32, and ousting Bayer Leverkusen and Sparta Prague (respectively) in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals. Liverpool has had tougher match-ups, though, and might be hungrier to prove themselves after the disappointments of the last few years. Bottom line, our money is on Klopp's squad.
As for the other match-up, it's tough to bet against Seville at this point. Shakhtar Donetsk has been surprisingly prominent so far in the knockout stage, eliminating Schalke 04 (3-0), Anderlecht (4-1), and Braga (6-1) with exceedingly lopsided aggregates.
Those easy wins could mean one of two things: either Shakhtar Donetsk are undervalued by nearly everyone in soccer and will be able to use that fact as an advantage in the semi-final, or they've had such an easy run in the knockouts that they won't be quite ready to take on Sevilla. Our guess is that the Sevilla-Shakhtar Donetsk match-ups will be closer than most people expect them to be. At the end of the day, though, we can't bet against a two-time consecutive reigning champion, and we'll choose Sevilla to reach the finals and face off against Liverpool.
What are your predictions for the next two rounds of the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League? Is Sevilla destined to win a third UEL title in a row? Is Liverpool set to take the momentum of the Borussia Dortmund upset and turn it into the fuel they need to win their first Europa League since 2001? Are we underestimating Villarreal and Shakhtar Donetsk, two teams that have never won the Europa League before, but that have certainly earned their spots in the quarterfinals?
Only time will illuminate the answers to those questions, but you can share your thoughts and bets with Soccer Box right now by finding us on social media. We are active on multiple platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Google +.
Europa League Semi-Final Preview: Can Sevilla Make it Three in a Row?
23rd April 2016.