El Centrocampista

The road to Europa: A tale of one team’s extraordinary season

What a week for Spanish football. After Real and Atletico set up a mouth-watering all-Madrid Champions League final, the footballing fiesta continued on Thursday night when Sevilla overcame Valencia in a nail-biting Europa League semi-final.

Seven days after sauntering through the first-leg at the Sanchez Pizjuan, it was hearts in mouths right at the death in the return at the Mestalla. With Valencia 3-0 up and seemingly in the final, Stephane Mbia rose highest to power an injury-time header past goalkeeper Guiata and into the back of the net – sending Sevilla through on away goals, and the travelling fans into fits of hysteria. The Sevillistas now face Benfica in the final and will be considered underdogs by many upon arrival in Turin on May 14.

Yet here is a group of players who refuse to give in, under the guidance of a coach who is accustomed to success against the odds. “We are in a good place, close to something extraordinary. And I have faith in our ability.” said Coach Unai Emery prior to the semi-final showdown.

It has already been an extraordinary season for Sevilla. When Emery took over at the Sanchez Pizjuan in January last year, there was an air of skepticism surrounding his appointment. 2012 had been a year to forget for the man from Hondarribia, and he was sacked after just seven months in charge at Spartak Moscow. Nevertheless, Emery’s track record prior to his failed Russian experiment is one of consistent overachievement and, on closer inspection, it is clear that Unai and Sevilla are the perfect fit.

The 42-year-old’s managerial career took off when he guided Almeria to their first ever promotion to La Liga in 2007. An eighth-place finish to his debutant season in the top flight the following year was enough to turn heads amongst Europe’s elite. At the same time Sevilla won consecutive EUFA Cups under Juande Ramos’, boasting a start-studded team that included Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Freddy Kanoute.

In 2008 Valencia saw Emery as the man to steady the ship at the Mestalla in the face of a monsoon of financial problems. Mid-way through his four-year tenure with the Che club, in which he consistently finished third in La Liga, Emery was forced to overcome losing the services of superstars David Villa and David Silva. He succeeded, leading Valencia’s depleted squad to third place one more time in 2012.

Undoubtedly, Emery’s ability to transform the fortunes of a football club was taken into consideration last January at the board meeting of Spain’s ultimate selling club: Sevilla. Los Rojiblancos had suffered a noticeable fall from grace since the heroics of Ramos’ reign.  Alves, Keita and Kanoute are no longer Sevillistas. And fans have also had to bid farewell to Luis Fabiano, Adriano and Diego Capel in more recent times.

Emery’s first piece of business at Sevilla was to oversee the departure of two more key players in Alvaro “The Beast” Negredo and speedster Jesus Navas. A fraction of the €40m raised from the joint deal with Manchester City was given to the manager who spent wisely, bringing in forwards Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro from Club Brugge and PSG respectively. The new signings have combined with creative Croatian Ivan Rakitic to forge the driving force of Sevilla’s dynamic, attacking play. The trio have scored 57 goals between them this term, 16 of which have helped fire Sevilla to their European date with destiny.

Emery will fall victim to the club’s selling policy again this summer as rumours emerge that Rakitic is heading to the Bernabeu to replace Di Maria, who in turn will be reunited with former Coach Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. Behind his front three, the new Coach has shown shrewdness in creating the midfield partnership of Championship loanees Mbia, of QPR, and Daniel Caricco, who hopes to secure a permanent deal from Reading. The pair have worked in unison with centre-back Federico Fazio to form the bedrock of Sevilla’s deep-lying possession play this season.

It is this solid core to the team that has made Sevilla so resilient on their route to the final, coming from behind against Real Betis, Porto and then Valencia in each of the last three stages of the competition. Should Emery and Co find themselves trailing in Turin on May 14, don’t be too quick to rule out this season’s comeback kings achieving something truly extraordinary.

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