Europa League Triumph Would Be Fitting Tribute to Sevilla Hero Antonio Puerta

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Europa League Triumph Would Be Fitting Tribute to Sevilla Hero Antonio Puerta
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With next season's Champions League places decided, all roads now lead to Turin for Sevilla, where the Andalusian club will be looking to become only the fourth club to win the UEFA Cup/Europa League for the third time. 

It would also be the first piece of silverware to find its way into the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan since the club won the Copa del Rey in 2010. 

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Sevilla emerged victorious from both previous visits to European finals with back-to-back UEFA Cup triumphs in 2006 and 2007. “Finals,” says the club's prolific Colombian striker, Carlos Bacca, "are for winning," as Stefan Coerts of Goal.com noted.

Standing in their way are the mighty Benfica, who were one of Europe’s truly great sides in the early 1960s—winning successive European Cups.

But the Portuguese club have been Europe’s serial "nearly men" ever since, finishing runners-up in the European Cup/Champions League five times and twice in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, including last year, when they lost to the last kick of the game against Chelsea.

Despite injury and suspensions, which have left Benfica short of five first-team players, the Portuguese champions go into the final as slight favourites, although according to Sevilla legend Rafa Paz, who made no fewer than 340 appearances for the club, the match is too close to call. 

“I see it as absolutely 50-50, and the fact is I think the side that wins these type of games is the one that makes the less mistakes,” he tells my sources. 

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“Anything can happen in football. Against Valencia we looked totally out of it, but scored with the last move of the game. People also forget that against Betis it looked like we would not go any further, but we did.

“Sometimes in football, your name is on the trophy and you don’t why, but it is. These games are always different, one-off occasions with no chance to correct mistakes in a second leg. Anything can happen."

Up front, Sevilla could start with their leading goalscorer in the competition, Kevin Gameiro, despite his injury problems, although their real talisman is the brilliant Swiss-born Croatian playmaker, Ivan Rakitic, who has been attracting admiring glances from the world’s top clubs since moving to Sevilla from Schalke in 2011. 

Miguel Angel Morenatti/Associated Press

With a constant need to sell its prized assets to balance the books, Rakitic's days at the club look numbered, although, for the time being, non-stop questions over his future are all batted away by the player as he focuses on the Europa League final. 

Harry Redknapp, meanwhile, could be forgiven for thinking that Cameroon international Stephane Mbia, who is on loan to Sevilla, has an identical twin brother, because the one playing for the Spanish club who scored the last-gasp goal to put them into the final bears no playing resemblance to the poor performer who turned out 29 times for QPR as they were relegated from the Premier League last season. 

Victory for the La Liga side would be a fitting tribute to the memory of Antonio Puerta, who lived and died for his beloved Sevilla, the club he had represented from the age of eight. It was his goal against Schalke in 2006 that earned the club a place in their first-ever European final.

LIONEL CIRONNEAU/Associated Press

On 25 August 2007, just over two months after winning the Spanish Cup and three months after victory in the UEFA Cup final against Espanyol, Puerta suffered multiple heart attacks in the match against Getafe at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

He died in hospital three days later, leaving a girlfriend who was carrying his son—a child he would never see. He was just 22.

When he died, Reuters reported the then-president of the club, Jose Maria del Nido as saying: “From now on, Sevilla will be invincible because the spirit of Antonio Puerta will be with us always. Our opponents had better start denouncing us because from now on we will be playing with 12 players.”

With his help from another place, perhaps, as Rafa Paz says, Sevilla’s name is on the cup. For the memory of Antonio and the now six-year-old Aitor Antonio Puerta Roldan, I hope so.

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