It’s a magnificent number seven for Sevilla. Their incredible record of having won the Europa League/UEFA Cup every time they have reached the Quarter Finals remains intact after a night of raw tension, if not always high quality, in Budapest.
Look at the calibre of clubs they have beaten and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the best Sevilla side yet to get their hands on the trophy they love so much. It has certainly been their toughest run from the last eight to the Final. Manchester United were brushed away with five unanswered goals in the Quarters. It was tighter against Juventus in the last four, but over the two legs, Sevilla were worthy victors to set up a Final showdown against a man who simply doesn’t lose major European Finals.
Sevilla edge out Roma to win number 7
For 45 minutes on Wednesday evening, it felt like in Jose Mourinho, Sevilla had finally met their match. Roma looked sharper and stronger and were worthy of their lead when Paulo Dybala found a pocket of space in the Sevilla defence in the 35th minute and all too easily advanced into the Spanish club’s penalty area before firing past Bono.
There was little sign of life from Sevilla until Ivan Rakitic’s long-range effort crashed into the post deep into First Half Stoppage Time.
José Luis Mendilibar responded with two Half-Time changes as Bryan Gil and Óliver Torres were withdrawn to make way for Suso and Érik Lamela. Gradually the tide started to change as Sevilla grew in confidence and Roma dropped deeper and within ten minutes of the restart they were level.
Jesús Navas, a starter in Eindhoven seventeen years ago when Sevilla won what was then still the UEFA Cup for the first time, whipped in a trademark delivery from the right flank. Lucas Ocampos narrowly failed to make contact but, fortunately from a Sevilla perspective, the ball ricocheted off Gianluca Mancini and flew past Rui Patrício in the Roma goal to level the game.
From that point on, it felt almost inevitable that it would go the distance. While there were a couple of openings for Roma and Sevilla had a penalty correctly overturned by VAR, both sides had retreated into their shell by Extra Time with two of the Italian team’s main dangermen no longer on the pitch following the withdrawals of Dybala and Tammy Abraham.
Sevilla survived a late scare deep in Stoppage Time of Extra Time to take the game to penalties which would be taken at the Sevilla end, adding the advantage the Andalusians must have felt in having Bono in goal. Having successfully completely shut out Spain in a World Cup shootout only six months earlier, Bono was inspired again, saving two Roma spot kicks as Sevilla edged closer to La Séptima.
In another flashback to Qatar, it was Gonzalo Montiel, scorer of the penalty that won the World Cup for Argentina, that stepped up to take Sevilla’s decisive fourth. This time he was denied by Rui Patricio, but the referee ordered a retake and Montiel made no mistake second time around sparking wild celebrations on the pitch and amongst the thousands of Sevilla fans who were packed in behind the goal.
A Europa League love affair
Sevilla’s latest and on many levels most remarkable Europa League triumph was in the book as they claimed the trophy for the seventh time. An extraordinary feat in a competition that many bigger clubs and on paper better teams have tried and failed to win since they claimed their first as recently as 2006.
No other club has won a trophy that was first handed out way back in 1972 more than three times. No other club has quite the same affection for the Europa League and while players and coaches come and go, the special magic that Sevilla conjure up time and time again in this competition always seems to pass from one team to the next.
The one constant is the supporters. The word “fortress” is perhaps overused in football but the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán certainly falls into that category. Sevilla would not be where they are today, with seven European trophies in their collection, were it not for their passionate fans who have roared them all the way to the Final again.
It’s no coincidence that they won all four home knockout ties this season, by an aggregate score of 10-1, whilst failing to win any of the away legs with Youssef En-Nesyri’s strike in Turin, the only away goal scored by a Sevilla player en-route to the Final (their two goals at Old Trafford were both own goals).
Sevilla’s Europa League love affair is also sadly a tale tinged with tragedy. The death of homegrown left-back Antonio Puerta at the age of just 22, only months after he’d helped Sevilla win the 2007 UEFA Cup, rocked the club to its very core. His memory is today honoured by his former teammate and close friend Jesús Navas who was given Puerta’s number 16 shirt when he returned in 2017.
Navas has now won the competition four times, a feat bettered by only one man. That’s José Antonio Reyes, another academy graduate who was part of the Sevilla side that won the competition three years running under Unai Emery in the mid 2010’s. He also won the trophy twice with Atlético Madrid to take his total haul to five, but tragically died in a car crash in 2019.
In Budapest, it was another Europa League winning player who would have been on the minds of Sevilla players and fans alike with the news that former goalkeeper Sergio Rico had been seriously injured in an accident involving a horse in the days before the Final. He remained in intensive care in a Seville hospital at the time that some of his former teammates took to the field at the Puskás Aréna.
“Hopefully we can offer victory tomorrow to Nema (Gudelj) and to Sergio Rico too, who is going through difficult times” were the words of Sevilla captain Navas ahead of the Final. He was also referencing centre-back Nemanja Gudelj who started against Roma and has has performed admirably in the latter half of the season despite difficulties in his personal life with his brother suffering a cardiac arrest during a match with Cordoba in March and the loss of a baby he and his wife were expecting.
Why this title was not like the rest
It’s tempting to just band this latest trophy in with all their others. It’s Sevilla, it’s the Europa League and this is just what tends to happen. That’s the easy narrative and while there are obvious parallels with their previous successes in the competition, this title was not like the others.
Previous triumphs could largely be attributed to the success of excellent recruitment, mostly masterminded by Sporting Director Monchi and the ability to plan ahead and deal with departures and arrivals without unsettling the balance of the team. The successes in 2006, 2007, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2020 all came in relatively stable seasons when Sevilla had just one coach and comfortably finished towards the top end of LaLiga (between 3rd and 7th on each occasion).
Stability has not been the word you’d use to describe this season though. For once, Sevilla’s recruitment badly let them down last summer with centre-backs Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos not adequately replaced and a miserable start to the campaign led to the departure of Julen Lopetegui, a change that would surely have suited all parties better had it taken place at the end of the 2021/22 season.
The next big decision would also in time prove to be the wrong one. Jorge Sampaoli came in with Sevilla 17th in LaLiga in early October and did little to salvage the situation as Sevilla continued to hover above the relegation zone throughout his reign with his players struggling to adapt to his at times complex ideas. A 2-0 defeat at Getafe in March would prove the final straw as Sampaoli was sacked, although he had successfully managed to guide the side through Europa League knockout ties against PSV Eindhoven and Fenerbahce by that point.
He was swiftly replaced by José Luis Mendilibar, appointed to keep Sevilla in the league rather than win a European trophy. Such was the worry that a club that finished 4th only last season might go down, Mendilibar felt it necessary to rest a host of key players for the 1st Leg of the Quarter-Final against Manchester United, another big break from Sevilla’s successful Europa League formula which had in previous years always seen them take the competition seriously and often prioritise it over the league.
Mendilibar adopted what could best be described as a “back to basics” approach, simplifying the tactics and playing in a more direct fashion. While the performances have rarely been sparkling, the results speak for themselves.
Sevilla have won 9 times in all competitions since Mendilibar took charge, losing just twice, to move well clear of danger in LaLiga which in turn helped them place greater importance on their Europa League ties. The 2nd Legs against Manchester United and Juventus are nights few Sevilla fans will forget in a hurry and it’s remarkable that they’ve managed to sustain the momentum right into the final week of the season to clinch another European trophy, not to mention a place in the UEFA Champions League.
Summing up La Séptima is no easy feat and it may always stand out as something of an anomaly in Sevilla’s era of Europa League dominance. It feels like a triumph of Mendi rather than Monchi with the team that won in Budapest little more than a depleted version of Lopetegui’s 2019/20 side which featured Kounde, Carlos and Ever Banega, as well as younger and fitter versions of Navas and Fernando.
That particular cycle appeared to end with the departure of Lopetegui or perhaps even six months previously with a tame exit against West Ham in last season’s Europa League. For Sevilla to see that side break up, fail to replace their best players and then endure such a turbulent campaign, yet still end up with a European trophy, makes this a truly extraordinary turnaround and one that almost defies all logic.