Journey to the Centre of the Europa League – semi-finals

One of the most attractive aspects of the Europa League – as opposed to the increasingly closed-shop feel of its bigger brother, the Champions League – is its diversity.

Clubs from Denmark, Ukraine, Switzerland, Turkey, Austria and Scotland made it to this season’s last-16 stage, alongside several standard-bearers from the ‘Big Five’ leagues.

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Now, though, the final four has been distilled into a fine concoction of European football royalty and those with a rich recent history in continental competition. This week, Germany’s Rhineland hosts a long overdue climax, where the winner will come from one of Inter, Manchester United, Sevilla or Shakhtar Donetsk.

Internazionale v Shakhtar Donetsk

UEFA Cup winners in 2009, Shakhtar’s characteristic Brazilian essence has since remained a reassuring constant throughout turbulent times. While that vintage side contained such enduring stars as Fernandinho and Willian (plus Ilsinho, Jádson and striker, Luiz Adriano), this year’s journey to the final four has relied upon the input of Taison, Alan Patrick and Dodô. That’s not to mention naturalised ‘Ukrainians’, Júnior Moraes and silver-haired sharpshooter Marlos.

36-year-old ‘keeper Andriy Pyatov was also in goal that famous night in Istanbul (ok, not that ‘famous night in Istanbul’) and will start against Inter on Monday.

Since joining from Dynamo Kyiv, Pyatov’s international team-mate Júnior Moraes has been a reliable source of goals, scoring 26 last season and matching that total already this year. His clinical strikes against Wolfsburg and Basel last week helped seal Shakhtar’s passage to the semis. Their top scorer may now be 33 – and Marlos 32 – but neither show any signs of slowing productivity.

With a well-honed pattern of play and established attacking combinations, the Kyiv-based side have been prolific in the Europa League, scoring 14 times in their five outings since – like Inter – dropping out at the Champions League group stage.

Of course, the Miners have, by necessity, become an itinerant band of brothers in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of the Donbass region. Their 70,000-capacity home out of bounds for political and safety reasons, they have since hosted ‘home’ games in Lviv, Kharkiv and more recently the capital, Kyiv. There has been some suggestion that this should better prepare Luís Castro’s men for the strange eventuality facing them in Düsseldorf: a sparsely populated stadium in a strange city. They also had an extra two weeks to rest after winning the domestic title at a canter.

Though Shakhtar’s route thus far has inarguably been more straightforward than most, their toughest test now awaits.

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Inter have their own illustrious UEFA Cup history, lifting the trophy in 1991, ‘94 and ‘98. After a faltering mid-season period, where the Milanese giants fell off the pace in the scudetto chase, they lost just one of their 13 league games after the restart to finish a single point behind Juventus.

This may be their 17th game in the past couple of months, but a certain laser-focussed head coach will allow no quarter to be given with silverware in plain sight.

The nerazzuri’s former Atalanta midfielder, Roberto Gagliardini told Sky Sport Italia: “It’s an important and difficult match against a strong team, who we are studying carefully this week, and who have impressive individual talents,”

“Perhaps Shakhtar have more technically gifted forwards than Leverkusen did, very quick, and they can cause problems…but we know how to make life difficult for them.”

Tellingly, he added:

Besides, the coach lives every match like a final anyway, so we are preparing with real determination.

Antonio Conte does indeed expect incessant intensity week in, week out. To that end, the depth of squad at his disposal is significant – and could be decisive. Boasting experienced campaigners such as Christian Eriksen and Alexis Sánchez on the bench is a luxury not afforded to many – in fact, any – at Europa League level.

Conte’s standard 3-5-2 set-up rarely deviates from the tried and tested but is ruthlessly effective. But how will his imposing central defenders fare against the guile and artistry of Shakhtar’s fleet-footed forwards? Perhaps more to the point – how will the Ukrainian champions deal with Inter’s irrepressible front pair?

Star striker Romelu Lukaku set a new record on Monday by scoring in nine consecutive Europa League games (some of which were for Everton). With potentially two games remaining, the 27-year-old has scored 31 goals to date, ably supported by Lautaro Martínez.

However, the ‘third man’ in that attacking partnership, Sánchez, could possibly miss out with an injury sustained against Leverkusen. On Wednesday, a club statement confirmed that the ex-Udinese man underwent medical tests in Duisburg which showed a strain in his right hamstring. His condition “will continue to be reassessed.”

Otherwise, the squad looks teak-tough and their confidence is tangible after ten games unbeaten. Ashley Young, who has excelled recently, told of his the standards set by his manager:

He demands everything, not just in matches, in training as well. You can tell he’s a winner. He wants to win, and he demands that from all the players, a winning mentality.

Ominously for Shakhtar, the 2017 Europa League winner concluded:

“The team spirit we’ve got here is unbelievable. Everybody’s fighting for each other; everybody wants to win.”

Sevilla v Manchester United

While two seriously in-form teams will go tête-à-tête in Düsseldorf, some of the statistics being bandied around before Manchester United’s Cologne clash with Europa League specialists Sevilla are eyebrow-raising.

The two clubs have won four of the last six editions of the Europa League between them, with the Sevilla lifting the Coupe UEFA three times in that period. And not only is recent history behind them, but both sides have hit a new peak since June’s resumption.

Sevilla’s unbeaten streak now stands at 19 matches in all competitions; not losing once since February and keeping clean sheets in their last five. Los rojiblancos are also undefeated in 14 of their last 15 Europa League matches.

United’s portents for progress are similarly strong. Unbeaten both in their last six European games and since January in the process of sealing third place in the Premier League, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men have racked up an aggregate score of 14-2 in the knockout rounds so far.

Though both sides have an array of attacking options, it is in defence that they have excelled throughout the competition. United have kept eight clean sheets in 11 Europa League matches this season, while Sevilla have kept seven in 10.

Befitting their form, team selection should be relatively simple for both sides. Apparently in order to add fluidity in midfield and rotate a tiring first XI, Nemanja Matić and Victor Lindelöf were dropped for United’s quarter-final win over FC Copenhagen last week. Matić is likely to return, however, given the need to negate the opposition’s domineering midfield.

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Marcus Rashford is to be assessed after suffering a groin injury towards the end of Monday’s match; if necessary, experienced campaigner Juan Mata is poised to deputise. Sergio Romero should expect to keep the gloves ahead of David de Gea.

Though their quarter-final win saw Solskjaer’s team looking decidedly leggy, their dynamic attack still tallied 13 shots on target and – had it not been for FCK ‘keeper Karl-Johan Johnsson’s heroics (his 13 saves were the most in the competition since 2009) – progress could have been sealed without the need for extra time.

This apparent late-season tiredness and the after-effects of extra-time should nullify any advantage accrued from playing a day before their opponents. The solidity of Sevilla’s ace centre-back pairing, with ex-Manchester City man Fernando stationed just ahead of them, will require the Old Trafford side to be significantly more clinical on Sunday.

Sevilla’s record in the Europa League is widely acknowledged – on every previous occasion that they have reached the quarter-finals, they’ve gone on to win the whole thing. And, as has been much discussed in the build-up, United will bitterly recall being knocked out of the Champions League by the Andalusian side two years ago.

Accordingly, club legend and ex-City winger Jesús Navas has fond memories:

I’ve played against them several times. I recall the passion surrounding the derby. I was lucky enough to appear in some really special games and those were great times. We know they’re tough opponents and it’ll be difficult.

In terms of their individual players, they’ve got some quick players up top who are dangerous. We’re focusing on ourselves and particularly keeping calm when necessary, then attacking at pace.

Coach Julen Lopetegui generally sets his side up in a 4-3-3 that morphs into a more solid 4-5-1 when out of possession. Playing with remorseless intensity, pressing high and harassing opponents that build from the back, they can be a ninety minute nightmare to face.

Attacking threat comes chiefly from the wide areas, as full-backs Navas and Sergio Reguilón maraud into the attacking third at will, aided by the tireless runs of Lucas Ocampos. Alongside the ageless Fernando, creative fulcrum Éver Banega orchestrates in midfield – he created a scarcely credible 17 chances over two legs against United in 2018.

Lopetegui has a full hand to pick from but is likely to stick by his starting side against Wolves. First choice stopper Tomáš Vaclík was back on the bench last time out, though Yassine Bounou is favoured to start in goal again after saving Raúl Jiménez’s early penalty.

Given his past associations with Barcelona (as reserve goalkeeper) and Real Madrid (briefly head coach), he perhaps surprisingly labelled Manchester United “the biggest team in the world” at the pre-match press conference.

He added:

We’re focused on the next game, against a top, historic side, one of the best in the history of the sport who are in great form.

While painting his charges as plucky underdogs in this way is an understandable ploy, Lopetegui knows that expectation is sky-high that Sevilla can continue their stay in Cologne for a few more days. The final takes place on Friday…finally.

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