Under the long shadow cast by an ever-spectacular, goal-tastic, positively Neymaresque elder sibling, the season-ending Europa League tournament has been considered a mere sideshow by some.
But as luck would have it, fate – plus, of course, raw ability and inspired coaching – has brought together two formidable contenders for what promises to be a fascinating Final. Fascinating – though not necessarily with the promise of a Champions League-style gung-ho goalfest.
In fact, there are several lenses through which Friday night’s clash between Internazionale and Sevilla can be seen:
Purists will look forward to a tense tactical battle between two highly-rated coaches. Conte’s fervent 3-5-2, defined by suffocating control and an explosive counter, staring down the supremely organised 4-3-3/4-5-1 of Lopetegui.
Romanticists may instead see this as ‘The Éver Banega Final’ – ‘for now and for Éver!’ With an ever-growing list of unseemly misdemeanours the length of his heavily-tattooed arm, the sublimely gifted Banega is one of few direct links between the clubs. They have never met in UEFA competition but the Argentine playmaker did (briefly) feature for Inter in between his two successful spells at Sevilla. With a lucrative move to Al-Shabab already agreed, will Banega ride off into the sunset (taking care not to run himself over in the process) with the Coupe UEFA in his back pocket? Unlikely, as the trophy’s a whopper and could never safely be trousered.
The casual fan, meanwhile, awaits an opportunity to see mega-talents such as Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez light up the big stage, while ex-Premier League men like Ashley Young, Christian Eriksen, Fernando and Jesús Navas fill the supporting roles.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s a prospect to savour.
Never less than illuminating, before the Final, Inter boss Conte reflected on a generally satisfying first season in charge:
There’s still one more match, which for us is the most important game – it’s a final, the chance to win a major trophy. I certainly think it’s been a positive season overall. We’ve made major improvements.
We see the glass as half full, because [we have had] a much more successful journey in the Europa League than we would have had in the Champions League. I think this team, with a lot of young, inexperienced players, needed that.
On his irrepressible ‘Lu-La’ attacking tandem, featuring the twin talents of Lukaku and Lautaro, he defined the reason for their success:
They’re players who have the typical selfishness of a forward, but also the selflessness to play for the team and help others score.
The pair have combined to notch 54 goals between them this campaign and both scored braces in the resounding semi-final win over Shakhtar Donetsk, prompting legendary coach Arrigo Sacchi – clearly overlooking cake and tea – to label them as “perhaps the strongest partnership in the world”. The stat-crunchers at UEFA.com have spotted a potential omen, too: in his first Inter season, Ronaldo scored 34 goals and won the 97/98 UEFA Cup; Lukaku’s goal tally going into the Europa League final? 33.
Conte also reserved praise for stalwart centre-half Diego Godín, who has come good after an indifferent start at San Siro:
He needed some time to adjust to our style of play, which was completely different from what he was used to [at Atlético]. He had to learn to defend while running forward; with 50 yards of space behind him.
He had the strength, professionalism and humility to make himself available and broaden his game.
Strength, professionalism and humility have been qualities required in abundance, too, by Sevilla manager Julen Lopetegui in the not-too-distant past.
From the rare high of leading his nation into a World Cup unbeaten in 20 games, including impressive wins over Argentina, Italy, Belgium and eventual world champions France, his stock soon fell so low that many were surprised by his appointment at Estadio Sánchez Pizjuán last summer.
Once it became known that he had misguidedly accepted the role as Zinedine Zidane’s successor at Real Madrid just days before the 2018 tournament started in Russia, Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales ruthlessly fired him. Presented at Santiago Bernabéu only a day later, Lopetegui never looked at home in the dugout, surviving just 14 games. By October’s end, he’d been sacked again.
However, his first year with los rojiblancos has seen a return to the club’s treasured territory of the Europa League Final plus a first top-four finish in La Liga for three seasons, thus vindicating the faith of god-like recruitment mogul Monchi and the Sevilla hierarchy.
All this following a huge turnover of playing staff – 17 new players arrived last summer and more than 20 left throughout the season. Chief goal-getters Wissam Ben Yedder and Pablo Sarabia departed, without being adequately replaced. Luuk de Jong and Youssef En-Nesyri have since flattered to deceive.
Nonetheless, Lopetegui has forged a resolute side on the back of excellence in central midfield and defence, where the wily Fernando and brilliant Banega control the centre of the park, while Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos keep the back door firmly bolted. The result: a club record run of 20 games without defeat either side of the coronavirus hiatus.
Winning eight of their last nine – impressively dismissing in-form sides Roma, Wolves and Manchester United in the process – has bolstered confidence and Sevilla’s unmatchable heritage in this competition is a rich source of inspiration. Their coach knows, though, this could be the toughest test of all:
“Inter are equipped to compete in the Champions League given the extraordinary calibre of players they have and a very experienced manager. That will require us to be at our limit…to compete with them. It is a daunting challenge.” A challenge potentially made even more difficult without the marauding presence of winger Lucas Ocampos, who limped off against United.
Still, their impressive rearguard is intact. Last summer, generally frugal Sevilla sanctioned a club-record fee for Koundé, paying Bordeaux a reported €25m for the then 20-year-old centre-back – an investment which could be at least doubled when he departs. The all-action defender’s words echoed his manager’s and sum up the size of their task:
It’s a level above anything else we’ve faced this season. We’ll need to up our game for the final.
The fan-free showpiece in Cologne will be refereed by 37-year-old Dutchman Danny Makkelie, having been an additional assistant referee (the useless fellas with the pointy sticks – remember them?) in the 2018 decider between Marseille and Atlético, before progressing to the VAR hot-seat for last season’s Champions League final. He will hope for a smooth elite final debut amid echoing stands; free of the fan-fuelled frenzy so intrinsic to this sort of occasion in normal times.
So, the Europa League’s quixotic journey – stretching from Azerbaijan to Portugal, from Istanbul to Malmo – finally comes to its conclusion. And all it took was a year, a pandemic-enforced pause and an immeasurable number of games to decide the trophy’s destination. A curious year for a captivating competition.
And for the winners on Friday? Along with a shiny replica of the magnificent Coupe UEFA, a place in the UEFA Super Cup against Bayern or PSG on 24 September – when it all begins again in Budapest.