12th May 2016.
Sevilla made Europa League history a year ago, beating Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-2 in the championship match to clinch their fourth title. It was a record-breaking moment for the Spanish soccer club, putting them above Juventus, Inter Milan, and Liverpool in the annals of UEFA's second-tier European club football tournament. Now, following an exciting semi-final round, Sevilla will seek to defend their Europa League title against Liverpool, who themselves are looking to tie the four-title record.
A Premium Match-up
Needless to say, the final-which is scheduled for May 18th at St. Jakob-Park in Switzerland-will be one of the highest-profile in the history of the Europa League. Rarely do we see such heavyweight battles in the Europa League.
Sure, Sevilla and Liverpool aren't the top teams in their home countries and would probably struggle to make it out of the groups in the Champions League. (Sevilla even got a shot at the UCL this year, but couldn't distinguish themselves in a group that included Manchester City and Juventus.)
In the Europa League, though, these two teams are virtual royalty. Sevilla have played in four Europa League finals and won all of them, clinching back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 and then replicating the feat in 2014 and 2015. Liverpool, on the other hand, have only played in three Europa League finals but also have a 100% success rate after reaching that stage. No matter what happens on May 18th, one of those streaks will come to an end-an exciting proposition that could make for one of the most competitive games in 2015/16 football.
The Tournament so FarÂ
Before we dive into trying to predict which of these teams will go all the way to victory in this year's Europa League, let's a take a quick look at the roads that brought them to this point.
Of the two teams, Sevilla always seemed like the one destined to reach the final, whereas Liverpool struggled a bit in the early stages. The Reds still topped their group (which included Sion, Rubin Kazan, and Bordeaux), but only did so with a modest record of two wins and four draws. They then narrowly eked out a win against Augsburg in the round of 32, winning the second leg on a penalty goal to force a 1-0 aggregate.
Since the round of 32, though, Liverpool have seemed thoroughly committed to the cause of winning this tournament. Despite arguably the toughest match-ups on the board, the Reds pushed through the middle rounds, beating Manchester United on a 3-1 aggregate in the round of 16 and orchestrating an epic come-from-behind victory to beat Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals.
The second leg between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund might just have been the best game of the year, in any competition. The game had everything, from the narrative of Jurgen Klopp facing off against his old club to Liverpool's steep underdog status. BVB had crushed Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 in the round of 16, and considering the Spurs' superior position to Liverpool in the Premier League; it seemed likely that the Reds would encounter a similar fate.
Reality seemed to favor that prediction for a while, too. The first leg of the Borussia Dortmund-Liverpool match-up ended in a 1-1 stalemate, but fate turned against Klopp's squad early in the second leg, with Dortmund's visiting side establishing a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes. Liverpool finally scored on their home soil at the beginning of the second half, but less than 10 minutes later, BVB scored again.
Remarkably, Liverpool battled back in the last half hour of play to tie the game. Still, it looked as if Dortmund would win on away goals until Liverpool's Dejan Lovren gave his team the lead with virtually no time left. The Reds won the game 4-3, took an aggregate advantage of 5-4, and earned the right to advance to the semi-finals.
Sevilla had an easier run of things. After getting a bye into the round of 32 due to a third-place group stage finish in the Champions League, the reigning Europa League champions beat Molde on a 3-1 aggregate. The round of 16 was nearly as easy, with Sevilla topping Basel 3-0.
In the last two rounds, though, Sevilla have shown a bit more weakness. Drawn against Athletic Bilbao for the quarterfinals, the Red and Whites had a strong start, winning the away leg 2-1. Bilbao returned the favor in the second leg, beating Sevilla 2-1 to tie the aggregate and the away goals. The game went to extra time and then to a penalty shootout, which Sevilla won 5-4.
Compared to the excitement of the quarterfinals, both Liverpool and Sevilla had a slight respite in the semis. Liverpool once again showed that they're much better at home than they are away, losing the first leg of their battle with Villarreal 1-0. (Villarreal scored in stoppage time to pull out the surprise win.) In the second leg, though, the Reds were clearly the stronger team, taking the lead on an own goal from Villarreal just seven minutes in and scoring twice in the second half to win the game 3-0.
Sevilla also did far better at home in the semis, as they faced Shakhtar Donetsk for a chance to defend their back-to-back Europa League titles. The Red and Whites scored inside of the first 10 minutes of the away leg, to establish some strong starting momentum. At halftime, though, Donetsk were leading 2-1. Only an 82-minute penalty goal for Kevin Gameiro saved Sevilla from a loss.
In the home leg, things were different. Gameiro scored twice, and Mariano added a third to give Sevilla a 3-1 win and a 5-3 aggregate advantage.
The Final: Who Will Win?
Now, after their semi-final wins on May 5th, Sevilla and Liverpool will set their sights on May 18th and the high-stakes title match the day will bring. For Liverpool, the game is a last chance to pick up some silverware for the 2015/16 season. A win here would show that Jurgen Klopp is making clear and measurable progress at Anfield. Sevilla, meanwhile, are set to face Barcelona in the final of the 2015/16 Copa del Rey. Still, the Red and Whites won't want to let their title streak end.
Because of these various factors, there isn't a clear frontrunner or underdog in this particular match-up. It's hard to doubt a team that is four-for-four in their previous Europa League finals, but it's also difficult to doubt a team that's gone three-for-three at the same stage.
While Sevilla are the reigning champions, we might have to give the edge to Liverpool here. The Reds have faced tougher challenges in the 2015/16 Europa League so far, and they've handled them with aplomb. If Liverpool can come back from a 1-3 deficit to beat Borussia Dortmund 4-3, they can handle the pressure of playing a defending champion in a title match.
Furthermore, most pundits and betting sites predicted Liverpool to lose to Villarreal in the semis, and that certainly didn't happen. Liverpool also won the round without some of their best players, as Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez, Danny Ings, and Divock Origi were all out with injuries. While none of those guys are expected back in time for the Europa League final, it still speaks to Liverpool's deep well of talent and mental fortitude-as well as to Jurgen Klopp's coaching skill-that the Reds could play so well without them. We expect Liverpool will continue to defy the odds on May 18th.
Sevilla do have a stronger finisher in the form of Kevin Gameiro. Gameiro is the top scorer still remaining in the Europa League this year, having scored seven goals since the round of 32. (Adam Lallana, Liverpool's top scorer for the tournament, has only netted three points since the group stage.) Gameiro could cause trouble for the Reds, though Liverpool also faced strong finishers when they played Dortmund (Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang) and Villarreal (Cedric Bakambu).
What is your prediction for the Europa League final? Will Sevilla make history again by becoming both the first team to win five titles and the first team to win three Europa Leagues in a row? Or will Liverpool clinch their first UEL title since 2001, to tie Sevilla's four-trophy record? At Soccer Box, we want to hear your thoughts, so find us on social media to share a prediction or two. You can find us on multiple social platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
Sevilla will Aim to Defend Europa League Title
12th May 2016.