Liverpool, and especially their fans, must believe it’s destiny, and you can understand that. After all the elements that combined to make the Anfield quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund one for the ages—the Jurgen Klopp connection, the atmosphere, the scintillating, barely credible comeback—why wouldn’t they think that the club’s name is about to be engraved on the UEFA Europa League trophy for a fourth time?
In deepest Andalucia (and perhaps only there), they think quite differently. Many felt that the encounter between Klopp’s former club and his current one was so delectable that it should have been saved for the competition’s climax, but they could not have picked tougher opponents than Sevilla in Wednesday’s final.
Sevilla, like Liverpool, is a city whose heart beats football and sustains two grand and passionately supported clubs—Real Betis being their neighbours as Everton are Liverpool’s. In the context of the final, they have plenty in common, too. Sevilla and Liverpool have played seven UEFA Cup and Europa League finals between them, and neither has lost a single one.
Yet if Liverpool in a European final seem like an unstoppable force, they might be about to meet their immovable object. The regulars at the Estadio Sanchez-Pizjuan create a similar noise and fervour to those at Anfield—in a way, it is a shame that the pair are playing one match at a neutral venue, denying us a leg at each club’s respective home. Moreover, Sevilla believe that this moment is their destiny.
“El trono ya espera su rey,” said the headline of the city’s sports daily Estadio Deportivo on February 18th, the day of Sevilla's return to the Europa League when they faced Molde—"The throne is now expecting its king."
Rarely has a club seem so focussed on a trophy whose value has not always been recognised in every corner of Europe, and certainly not in England.
It’s hard either to think of a club who has worked so hard to make sure they were a part of the Europa League, taking the often-sniffed-at back door in, of third place in their UEFA Champions League group. Yet once Unai Emery’s team no longer had the possibility of reaching the last sixteen of Europe’s premier club competition, their gazes switched in an instant.
Watching Sevilla take on and beat Juventus at Sanchez-Pizjuan in their sixth Champions League group match back in December (a result that looks ever more impressive in hindsight) was something to behold. A team wanting to carry on in Europe into the new year by the means of this consolation prize is one thing. Fighting tooth-and-nail to get there is something else entirely.
That’s what Sevilla had to do after Fernando Llorente, almost inevitably in what has been a fitful season for him, headed them in front against his former club. “I clearly remember the last few minutes of that match,” defender Coke told the UEFA Europa League magazine television show this week. “We were all camped in our own box, struggling to get to the final whistle.”
Emery’s team needed luck as well as fight to achieve their aim, with Borussia Monchengladbach falling to bits in the last 10 minutes at an already-qualified Manchester City, which allowed them to overtake, but it’s moments when the stars align like this (like Liverpool’s comeback against Dortmund) that make it feel like it’s written.
The weight of history is something that the team from Nervion are ready to embrace. Having won the trophy four times in a decade, it is little wonder that Sevilla and their supporters feel a special bond to it. After two braces of trophy wins, lifting the cup in 2006 and 2007 under Juande Ramos and then in the past two seasons under Emery, a third straight win would break new ground in the competition’s history
Surpassing that Ramos side would be something. They were a thrilling lot that shaped the modern image of Sevilla, and it’s easy to forget quite how good they were. In the second of those two seasons, 2006-07, they began the season by routing Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco.
Later in it, Sevilla led La Liga for the first time in half a century, and were still in with a shout of becoming champions ahead of Real Madrid (the eventual winners) and Barcelona up until two games from the end of the campaign. A superb side replete with Dani Alves, Andres Palop, Luis Fabiano, Jesus Navas, Adriano and Fredi Kanoute ended the season with three trophies all the same, beating Getafe in the Copa del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabeu courtesy of Kanoute’s early goal.
The current team has not had the same capacity to compete in all formats; despite probably having the fourth-best squad in Spain on paper behind Barca, El Real and Atletico Madrid, Emery has often grappled with trying to find a best XI in quite cumbersome fashion, even if he remains an excellent coach.
Yet still there is some connection to the swashbuckling past under Ramos for Emery’s vintage, with a huge week opening up ahead of the men from Nervion. After Wednesday in Basel, Sevilla decamp to Atleti’s Vicente Calderon to face Barca in the Copa del Rey final on Sunday night. In both matches, what Coke described as the team’s “(ability) to absorb pressure” in that television interview will come under intense scrutiny.
However big an occasion Sunday might be, it is clear exactly which of the two fixtures is most occupying "sevillano" minds. These often feel like era-defining moments, the climax of a dream for better or for worse, the end of a cycle. We were reminded of that even in Sevilla’s last home game, when a scratch side were pummelled by Granada and Beto, the goalkeeper who was the shootout hero against Benfica in 2014, who tearfully waved what appeared to be his goodbyes.
Before Beto, it had been Palop who provided the turning point, doing a similarly crucial job in the 2007 shootout against Espanyol at Hampden Park, weeks after his own front-post header at Shakhtar Donetsk in stoppage time had prevented elimination for the holders.
The hero this time could be anyone. Yevhen Konoplyanka returns to the final in white a year after his current club broke his and Dnipro’s hearts in the Warsaw final. Ever Banega, their creative hub who looks to be on the way out to Inter (as per Gr Parlamento, via Football Italia), might have a last hurrah. Kevin Gameiro, already the competition's second top scorer with seven, has already scored crucial goals against Athletic Bilbao and Shakhtar Donetsk in the run.
The individuals, however, are not those creating that sense of a trophy win that is meant to be. That Liverpool feel just the same is going to make this final fascinating.