Benfica capped a brilliant week with a 2-1 win over Juventus in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final. Goals from Ezequiel Garay and Lima on either side of a Carlos Tevez strike were enough to give the Portuguese a slender lead to take to Turin.
Elsewhere Sevilla ceased the advantage in their semi-final over Valencia after a 2-0 win at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. Stéphane Mbia and Carlos Bacca scored for the hosts who will aim to make it to yet another European final.
Benfica vs. Juventus
It’s not a bad time to be a Benfica supporter as the Portuguese club has wrapped up their 33rd League title while the Eagles continue to soar in Europe. Despite being a traditional European powerhouse, Benfica have oddly never won a European trophy since the early 60’s when a certain Eusebio was in his pomp. Sadly, the Portuguese legend passed away this year and his death will certainly be a huge rallying cry for players and fans alike including the motivation required to finally bury the ‘Béla Guttmann’ curse. The Hungarian coach, who won two European Cups in 1961 and 1962, left the helm of the Eagles but reports suggest he said that the club wouldn’t win another European Cup for another 100 years. The Eagles would’ve felt the full force of the curse last May when they completely dominated Chelsea in the Europa League final and yet succumbed 2-1.
If they are to get another chance to break the curse, they would’ve have to do it the hard way as Juventus, another outfit with a underlying story – the final is played in the Bianconeri’s home stadium – had to overcome. Jorge Jesus’s men began confidently and were flying as early as the 2nd minute when a Miralem Sulejmani corner found was headed powerfully by Garay and despite Gianluigi Buffon’s best efforts, the defender wouldn’t be denied. Post-mortem of the goal showed that the Argentine managed to steal a march on the normally reliable Leonardo Bonucci, the Italian losing the Benfica defender in the crowded penalty box. The goal spurred an already confident side and for much of the 1st half, Benfica made all the running as the industriousness and energy of Lazar Marković and Sulejmani were causing the Italians all sorts of problems.
The Italian champions finally settled on the ball but Antonio Conte must’ve been disappointed by how little his team created in the 1st half where Mirko Vučinić started instead of Fernando Llorente. The Montenegrin forwards showed moments of promise but a his lack of mobility meant Benfica were able to handle him with ease. It would take the Old Lady 54 minutes to finally force Artur into a save as the Brazilian moved expertly to his right to tip a powerful Paul Pogba past the post. Juvenus were applying all the pressure now and as Benfica moved deeper into their own half, the breakthrough arrived. Pirlo whipped a delightful ball on the left where a marauding Kwadwoh Assamoah squared for Tevez who jinked past two Benfica defenders before sliding the ball below Artur.
The goal finally go the monkey off the Argentine’s back as he finally scored in Europe after a ridiculous barren spell that had spanned five years.
Prior to the goal, both managers rung he changes as an ineffective Vučinić made way for the pacy Sebastian Giovinco while Jesus brought in Lima for Oscar Cardozo. The away side were beginning to turn the screws and it almost told when a Stefan Lichtsteiner’s dangerous cross across the Benfica box was somehow hooked clear by Maxi Pereira. Just when it looked like the pressure would tell, it was the home side that retook the lead through a thing of beauty. Enzo Pérez’s pass was headed towards Ivan Cavaleiro but the Protuguse stepped over it allowing Lima to lash home a thunderbolt of a strike past Buffon. While the home fans were still celebrating, the Eagles almost grabbed a 3rd as Markovic curled one just past Buffon’s left hand post. Jesus would’ve loved a two-goal cushion but for now its Antonio Conte’s men who need to find the answers next week else it’ll be curtains and take with it the opportunity to play a final in front of their fans.
Sevilla vs. Valencia
For three consecutive years, Unai Emery had taken Valencia to 3rd in La Liga and in a certain way it was as good as a title as the top two were nigh impossible to catch. While Real Madrid and Barcelona tormented one and all, Emery made sure Champions League football was guaranteed despite facing a massive task in replacing the exits of talented players like Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa. Yet, the fans at the Mestalla are a very demanding lot and gradually trust corroded in the Turk leading to an inevitable ouster. Last night presented a great opportunity for revenge as Emery – now at the helm of Sevilla – had the chance to condemn Valencia to another fruitless season.
The home side are on something of a roll as Los Rojiblancos have lost just once in their last 11 La Liga games. The scintillating run has seen the Andalusian side catapult themselves into Champions League reckoning as they lie just 3 points and 1 place below Atheltic Bilbao in 4th. Their opponents have fallen into mid-table obscurity as the Europa League presents the last remaining chance of any silverware in an otherwise lackluster season. Despite their contrasting fortunes, Los Che began the better and almost took the lead when Paco Alcacer’s rasping shot stung the palm of Sevilla’s custodian Beto. But gradually the home side settled into the match and just like against Porto in the previous round, they had spell when they were as good as unplayable. First Fazio went close with a header that went just wide of the far post and moments later a brilliant Ivan Rakitic ball sent Bacca through but the Columbian was unable to finish from a right angle. The warning shots had been fired and soon enough, Sevilla made the breakthrough and once again Rakitic was at the heart of it. The Croatian swung a delightful freekick into the penalty box and despite a hint of off-side, Stefan Mbai improvised magnificently at the back post to send the fans into raptures.
Valencia were still shoring up on the back when Sevilla waltzed down the other end and doubled their lead. Vitolo drifted in from the left and laid the ball onto the path of Bacca whose superb first touch left two Valencia defenders eating his dust before sending a composed finish past Guaita. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men were on the rack and had Guaita to thank at the stroke of half time as once again Fazio climbed highest and planted a firm header towards the bottom corner only to see Guaita produce a magnificent save and keep his side in the tie. The 2nd half began and once again Pizzi’s men showed lessons hadn’t been learnt as his side just couldn’t live with Fazio during set plays as once again the Argentine rose highest but once again Guaita was on hand to deny him.
With the initiative firmly on their side, Sevilla inexplicably relaxed and allowed the away side into the match and the away goal almost materialized from thin air as Eduardo Vargas curled his shot inches wide of the far post. Emery gesticulated on the touchline obviously concerned about the away goal but his players seemed a little too comfortable resting on their laurels. Valencia were pinging the ball with much more confidence and should’ve grabbed a goal but Jonas’ shot produced awesome point-blank save from Beto. When the Brazilian was finally beaten, the crossbar came to Sevilla’s rescue as Vargas’ header cannoned off it. At full-time Valencia would be kicking themselves for not taking some of the chances that presented itself and will hope that they can complete another miraculous comeback like they did against Basel in the previous round.