Europa League: Benfica, Sevilla Book Turin Showdown

JUUUUUU!

 

Juventus bid goodbye to a home final after being unable to break down a resolute Benfica defense and drew 0-0 on the night and were knocked out 2-1 on aggregate. The Portuguese side will contest their second Europa League final in as many years.

 

While in Valencia, a sensational comeback from the home side was still not enough as Sevilla scored a crucial away goal at the death to progress on away goals after the tie finished deadlocked 3-3 on aggregate.

 

Juventus vs. Benfica

 

Both these European powerhouses will look into their impressive resumes and cringe when they realize that it’s almost twenty years since they’ve won something in Europe. Prior to their 2nd leg semi-final in Turin, both clubs had extra motivation to make the finals. For Juve it offered a chance to play the showpiece event in front of their adoring home fans – something Bayern found too much to handle a few years ago – but the Italians would’ve still fancied their chances. Their Portuguese opponents will firstly want to erase the bitter memories from losing last year’s final but more importantly win in the year Eusebio – their greatest ever player – passed away. Both these sides have also fallen into the Europa League after disappointing campaigns in the Champions League but were hoping to emulate last year’s Chelsea side who made the most of their ‘demotion’.

 

Last week’s 1st leg was an absorbing contest with each side dominated for short periods but for the most part the game was end-to-end. In Turin, Jorge Jesus prioritized holding onto the slim lead they had on aggregate and his side were happy to let the home side have most of the ball. One big difference from the first leg was the availability of Arturo Vidal as the Chilean was missing last week owing to a knee problem but here his dynamism and energy were on display early on. The Bianconeri fired the 1st warning as early as they 8th minute as Andrea Pirlo forced Jan Oblak to tip the Italian’s ferocious drive over the bar. Despite the early pressure, Benfica would’ve been glad that most of the opportunities came from long shots from the likes of Pirlo, Vidal and Stefan Lichtsteiner instead of clear cut chances. But Juve were gradually pushing the away side further and further into their own box as the occasional counter-attacks from Jesus’ men dried up. Leonardo Bonucci almost gave the Old Lady a much deserved lead but his header off a Pirlo free kick went just wide off the far-post. Two minutes later, Juve went even closer as Vidal’s looping header was cleared off the line by Luisao.

The second half began much like the first half had ended but the pattern remained unchanged as the Bianconeri were continually frustrated by dogged Benfica defending. Each attack would progress to the edge of the opposition box but resulted in nothing as a last ditch tackle or poor decision making thwarted Juventus time and time again. Pirlo was the 1st to force Oblak into making a save off note as the Italian’s vicious swerving effort was turned away by the Slovenian custodian. Having no luck in the box, Benfica suddenly helped their cause as Enzo Perez was sent off for a 2nd bookable offense. Down a man, the Eagles only retreated further into their lair as whatever little space there had been earlier disappeared. Conte threw in an attacker in Sebastian Giovincho for a defender and then brought in Claudio Marchisio and Dani Osvaldo hoping one of the trio would be able to inspire. It almost materialized as first Lichtsteiner was found by a raking cross field ball from Marchisio but the Swiss international unforgivably missed his control. In the next attack, the homeside even had the ball in the back of net but Paul Pogba was adjudged to have been in an offside position in the buildup. With the pressure reaching fever pitch, few of the players on the sidelines lost their heads as Mirko Vucinic and Lazar Marković were both shown red cards for instigating a scuffle. On the pitch, an attempted overhead kick from Pogba only resulted in bloodying Ezequiel Garay who had to be stretchered off leaving Benfica with 9 men to see out the remaining minutes. Juventus had one last chance when Martin Caceres’ powerful downward header was heading for the bottom corner by Oblak got down brilliantly to thwart the Mexican.
Valencia vs. Sevilla

VAAAAAAL!

Most people would’ve given Sevilla an easy ticket to the final, their two unanswered goals in the 1st leg should’ve been enough, but standing in their path was Valencia, a side who’d already come back from dead on one occasion. Another tasty subplot to this engrossing encounter was the presence of Unai Emery in the away dugout as the Spanish manager had been Valencia’s boss not so long ago. What gives the story extra bite was that Emery was considered not good enough despite finishing third – behind Barca and Real – for three consecutive seasons. The 42-year-old did not hold himself back last week as each Sevilla goal was celebrated with much fanfare but all of that would count for naught if his side allowed Valencia back into the tie.

 

Sadly for Emery, that is exactly what happened. From the early going the homeside were stuck in and had the intensity which which had been lagging in the early stages of last week’s trip to Seville. The early pressure also brought early reward as Sofiane Feghouli exchanged a neat one two with Edu Vargas before seeing his deflected shot rocket into the top corner. The home fans, always believing in the miracle after last round’s memorable comeback against Basel, had already chanted, ‘Yes we can’ and here their team were responding. Sevilla had been on a sensational run of form prior to the match but a demoralizing loss to Athletic Bilbao on the weekend had all but sent their Champions League qualification hopes up in smoke but the fallout from the defeat was clearly visible here. The away side showed none of the intensity from last week and Valencia were more than making the most of it. Feghouli almost erased the first leg deficit but was denied by a brilliant save from Beto. But the Brazilian was powerless when Jonas’s header hit the crossbar and rebounded off the Sevilla custodian.

 

Two goal lead gone in a mere 25 minutes. The tie was all square but Valencia had all the momentum.

 

Los Che were really pushing for the 3rd and it took more heroics from Beto to keep Benat’s effort from creeping in. Halftime brought scant relief for the Andalusian side as Emery’s men were unable to produce any sort of sustained pressure on the home goal. With the Mestalla faithful doing their bit, it appeared that the it was only a matter of time before Valencia buried their beleaguered opponents. In the 70th minute, salvation seemed to have arrived as Jérémy Mathieu’s stabbed an effort past Beto after a rebound from a corner had fallen kindly to the Frenchman. Pandemonium ensued as yet another unbeliebale comeback appeared possible. The homeside just needed to hold on for another 20 minutes. The only problem with the 3rd goal was that Valencia took their foot off the pedal as the tie was now on a knife edge and tension crept in. Sevilla finally began to stitch a few attacks but the early Valencia onslaught had had its effect. Most of Los Rojibalncos’ attacks came from desperation and it appeared the final appeared beyond their reach. And just when the referee appeared set to blow the full-time whistle, Sevilla struck in dramatic circumstances. A throw in from the right was launched into the box and Fazio somehow managed to get his head to the ball and flick it onto Stefan Mbia who powered his header past Diego Alves. Mbia wheeled off to celebrate but the cameras swung to Emery who ran half the pitch in pure elation. While the home fans were completely destroyed, Sevilla had snuck into their 3rd Europa league final in less than a decade. Emery’s revenge was complete!


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