Although the second tier of European club competition is often derided as meaningless, or an elongated process to progress to the latter stages, Wednesday’s Europa League final is a worthy showpiece and shows that not all of the continent’s crop regard it as a mere afterthought.
Spanish side Sevilla face newly crowned Portuguese champions Benfica in Turin with the Andalusian outfit hoping to win back the silverware they previously claimed in consecutive years between 2006 and 2007, while Jorge Jesus’ team are plotting to end the Bela Guttman curse that has haunted the club for over half a century.
When the Hungarian manager left Benfica following a contract dispute in 1962, his parting words that the club would not win another European title for 100 years have rung true to this day, with a woeful seven defeats in seven finals an unwanted record that the club are desperate to dispel.
Meanwhile, Sevilla crept into the final following a dramatic finish to their semi-final against Valencia but have secured a return to the competition next season with a fifth- or sixth-placed finish in La Liga.
With both sides desperate for victory yet employing varying approaches, there will be numerous fiercely competitive personal duels on show across the park.
Benfica are the clear favourites given the manner in which they dispatched favourites Juventus in the previous round, but with Sevilla relishing their status as underdogs, they will be a dangerous animal to contend with.
Squawka takes a look at a trio of battles that could be the difference between victory and glory or despair and defeat.
Carlos Bacca vs. Ezequiel Garay
The Colombian striker has played his way into contention for Jose Pekerman’s World Cup squad, with Radamel Falcao’s injury likely to open a route into the team for the 27-year-old given his impressive performances for Sevilla throughout the campaign.
Touted as a possible replacement for Diego Costa at Atletico Madrid, Bacca’s form has not gone unnoticed following his move to Spain from Club Brugge last summer, and with 14 strikes in La Liga only Kevin Gameiro can lay claim to a greater goal tally for Sevilla.
The forward has also carried his form onto the European stage with four goals in 12 appearances, including crucial strikes in both the quarter and semi-final stage. With a 63 percent shot accuracy and 21.1 percent conversion rate, he will need to be on top form if he is to negotiate a route past Benfica’s outstanding rear guard that has conceded just four goals in seven games in the competition.
That impressive feat is owed in part to Argentinian defender Ezequiel Garay. The 27-year-old has recovered from his uninspiring stint at Real Madrid and rebuilt his reputation at the Estadio da Luz to become one of Europe’s most sought-after defenders.
Entering his peak, the centre-back is accomplished on the ball but also tough in the tackle with a 67 percent duel success rate in the air. He should be able to cope with Bacca’s minimal presence in the air, but Sevilla will be unlikely to throw balls up to the Colombian. Instead, he will need to be nigh on perfect positionally and work in tandem with partner Luisao to shut out Sevilla’s front line.
However, although his defensive performance will be integral to Benfica’s night, he also carries a significant goal threat at set pieces and might just pop up to be an unlikely scorer, as often proves the case with defenders on the big occasion.
Stephane Mbia vs. Nicolas Gaitan
The Cameroon international has often been deployed as a defensive midfielder following his loan move from Championship side Queens Park Rangers despite being capable at centre-back, too. Having finally earned a move to England’s top flight, Mbia impressed during his spell in the Premier League only for the West London side to fail to escape relegation.
Unwilling to drop down a division, the move to Spain has worked out well for the 27-year-old, but he has been used sparingly in Europe with a total of just seven appearances.
Competitive and combatant, his towering presence helps to shield the back four from danger, but he can also carry the ball well when required, too, on the same note. Driving runs are difficult to derail, and his athleticism in the centre of the park could swing the pendulum in his side’s favour.
His action areas in the second leg of the semi-final against Sevilla display his ability to hold and sit deep, helping defensively if the team is under pressure, which will lead him into a direct duel with tricky midfielder Gaitan.
The Argentine can play in a variety of roles, and Mbia will need to follow him closely and track his movement between the lines if he is to stifle Benfica’s most creative force. The 26-year-old, who has long been linked with a lucrative transfer to one of Europe’s heavyweights, has created 11 chances in the competition, although he is yet to be credited with an assist.
Crisp and incisive while also capable of a piece of magic to unlock a defence, Gaitan can control the game if he is given the necessary space and time.
Expect Mbia to attempt to dominate the duel physically, as Gaitan is unlikely to be willing to be drawn into many challenges as he is more likely to ride one or skip around an onrushing defender rather than contest a 50-50.
Ivan Rakitic vs. Ruben Amorim
Benfica have a significantly stronger squad, which you would expect as they began the season in the Champions League before exiting the tournament at the group stages, narrowly missing out to Greek side Olympiakos.
However, their route to the final has left them light in central midfield following a number of avoidable problems. Enzo Perez picked up two yellow cards in the semi-final second leg, while a pair of wingers have also been ruled out through suspension. Silvio and Fejsa will both be absentees, but Ruben Amorim is the man likely to be charged with containing the creative Croatian Ivan Rakitic.
The versatile 29-year-old Portuguese midfielder Amorim has made six appearances in the tournament and boasts an uninspiring duel success rate, but with options depleted it is vital that he answers his manager’s call in a crucial moment for the club. Last year’s defeat to Chelsea was a crushing blow and Amorim, who has been with the club side 2008, will be keen to avenge the demons of last season.
He is capable across the centre of the park in a defensive or attacking role, but his positional sense and ability to stifle danger will be his most telling contribution in Turin. In a similar respect to Mbia, his opposite number, he will need to drive forward and push his team forward on times but also manage when he pushes on and when he hold his run, as he will be punished by Rakitic.
The 26-year-old is a real talent and possesses an outstanding knack of being able to pick a pass. With a huge 27 chances created thus far, he is the spark that can carve an opportunity out of nothing for Unai Emery’s side. Following his move from Schalke 04 in 2011, Rakitic has earned a reputation as one of the continent’s best playmakers outside of a so-called big club, and will relish his chance to shine on such a big stage.
Set to star at the World Cup with his national side, a telling contribution could lead to a transfer at the end of the season with a number of clubs reportedly interested in his signature, according to Radio Cadena COPE (via Sky Sports). However, do not expect him to be greedy or unfocused on the task at hand: If he can force his way into the game and receive plenty of the ball, Benfica’s defence will be tested, at the very least.
While he has scored a solitary strike in the Europa League, domestically he has amassed a total of 12 goals, so expect him to pull the trigger if an opportunity opens up.
He has an excellent understanding of forward Bacca’s movement, and if the game is stretched, his ability to find space that others cannot envisage could provide the chance that wins the match for his side.
All football stats courtesy of Squawka.com.