6 Things We Learned from Europa League Semi-Finals
After two dramatic evenings in the Champions League, the Europa League—the continent’s secondary club tournament—delivered with two terrific semi-finals of its own.
In Turin, Italy, Juventus were unable to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the away leg and crashed out after a 0-0 draw with Benfica. The Bianconeri missed out on the chance to contest the Europa League final in their home arena on May 14.
In their place, the Eagles of Lisbon will compete against Sevilla, who won an all-Spanish semi-final against Valencia.
Having won the first leg 2-0, the Rojiblancos managed to escape from a nervy (if thrilling) encounter with Valencia to seal a spot in the final. Unai Emery’s men had previously ousted Maribor, Real Betis and FC Porto.
Juventus' elimination underlines a season where players from the Iberian Peninsula have been far more successful than their counterparts from the rest of Europe.
Of the four teams still “alive” in European competitions, 45 are from either Spain (31) or Portugal (14).
The next three best-represented nations are all South American (Brazil 11, Argentina 10, Uruguay five).
Europe’s other traditional giants are all poorly represented. France and Germany can only boast three players each, while England and Italy have no players who are still competing in either the Champions League or the Europa League.
Italian Football Needs a Pickup
As sportswriter James Horncastle pointed out on Twitter earlier in the evening, Italy was at the top of UEFA’s coefficient ranking from 1986 to 1999:
@Riaz1982 the strength of Italy's. No league has ever been as competitive as Serie A between 86 + 99— James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle) May 1, 2014
Serie A’s coefficient ranking hasn’t been as low as it currently is (fifth) since 1984. Juventus' defeat and their missing out on a home final come as a cruel blow to a league and nation that are well-aware of their deficiencies.
Miguel Delaney summarised Italy's failings in continental competition on Twitter:
Or, in other words, three semi-finalists, and only one in the big competition, in seven seasons.— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) May 1, 2014
The Irish journalist noted that in the last seven seasons, Italy has produced only three semi-finalists in both the Champions League and the Europa League.
Benfica Might Be Ready to End the 'Curse'
It’s been a tough old road for Benfica since they last won a European competition back in 1962. The two key protagonists of that triumph, Mario Coluna and Eusebio, passed away earlier this year, but in the intervening seasons, the pair had lived through seven defeats in continental finals for their beloved Eagles.
The most recent, of course, was last season’s Europa League final defeat to Chelsea in Amsterdam.
Such persistent, relentless failure has given weight to the myth of iconic Hungarian manager Bela Guttmann cursing the club when he was jilted in 1962.
This year, however, after winning their first league title since 2010 and overcoming a fine Juve side to qualify for the final, the capital club look better-placed than ever to break the “curse.”
One of the most impressive stats of the evening was that this was the first time Juventus have failed to score at home in 25 competitive games—Sevilla will have to do something special to pierce Jorge Jesus' rearguard.
La Liga Reinvigorated
A season or two ago, there was a great fear that La Liga was heading the same way as Scotland. With Barcelona and Real Madrid tearing away toward the championship, the concern was that the rest of the league was stagnating and becoming a mass of mediocrity.
The departures of some of the division’s key supporting cast members, like Fernando Llorente (Bilbao to Juventus), Roberto Soldado (Valencia to Tottenham Hotspur) and Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla to Manchester City) seemed to suggest that the trend was going to continue for some time yet.
What refreshment, then, to see the performance of Spanish sides in this season’s European competition.
Valencia may have been eliminated on Thursday, but they put on a thriller against Sevilla before falling by the wayside.
Of the teams left in continental competition, 75 percent of them are Spanish, while Real Sociedad are the only one of the nation’s original European competitors not to have been eliminated by a fellow Spanish side.
Europa League Looking Up
The Europa League has struggled to shake its reputation as the unhappy second fiddle to the illustrious Champions League.
Admittedly, it has the potential to derail a promising domestic league campaign, can leave a talented side overwhelmed by a fixture backlog and involves voyages to the far and distant corners of the continent.
However, the business end of the competition has the power to enthrall and genuinely means a lot to clubs that are among the continent’s grandest.
Anyone witnessing the despair of Juventus players at the final whistle or the celebration of Benfica’s players at reaching the final will be under no illusion of the importance of this competition for those involved.
The addition of a Champions League place as a reward for the winners as of next season may well concentrate the minds of competitors early in the tournament and increase the overall competition and intensity of the early stages.
Africa’s Sole Representative
With football a global game these days, it is rare to have such a limited African presence in the final four teams that are left alive in continental competition.
No Africans are present in the squads of Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid, while Benfica are also devoid of any players from the continent.
In fact, the only African player left “alive” in European competition is Stephane Mbia of Cameroon, who is on loan at Sevilla from QPR.
The defender has come into form of late and scored a superb goal—one of the finest in the competition to date—to seal his club’s progress.
Last year, no Africans featured in the tournament finale (although Nigerians John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses were unused substitutes)—the continent’s hopes will be resting on Mbia making an appearance to stop an unhappy trend this time around.
If he plays, he will be the first to star in the competition’s centrepiece occasion since Albert Meyong in 2011.