Spanish side Sevilla and the Europa League are increasingly becoming synonymous. Having made it to their third final in a row, winning the previous two, they are without doubt the tournament’s finest exponents.
And there can be no doubting their European pedigree. Having struggled for the second successive year in the Champions League, which they qualified for by virtue of winning this tournament, their stunning win against Juventus in the group stage meant they had managed to engineer another return to the Europa League to defend their crown.
As the game’s only goalscorer Fernando Llorente put it, that night was their cup final.
But now the Spaniards have two more to contest; one tomorrow night, and one more on Sunday, where they will face champions Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final.
Yet despite their veteran status in the Europa League, Liverpool having nothing to fear about the Spanish club.
Sevilla are not as strong as they have been in recent years. They have struggled domestically by their own standards.
They finished the season in seventh, one place above Liverpool’s eighth place finish. But their return of just 52 points, a staggering 24 less than last term, gives an indication of how much has changed over the past year. They have also lost as many games as they have won in La Liga, 14 wins and 14 defeats.
Sevilla’s form coming into the tie has also been poor. They have won just one game in their last nine – a stunning collapse towards the end of the season. This dreadful run has seen them lose to struggling Gijon and Granada, the latter beating them 4-1 at home less than two weeks ago.
Liverpool by contrast, despite resting players, go into Wednesday night’s game four matches unbeaten, and have managed to accrue eight more domestic points than their cup final opponents.
Clearly, Sevilla’s thoughts have been elsewhere coming into this tie. Indeed the Europa League has been one distraction, whilst the Copa Del Rey final is another.
Further adding to their woes have been the loss of ex-Arsenal man Jose Antonio Reyes and influential Danish midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli, who both sustained injuries last month and will now miss this week’s finals. Krohn-Dehli is a particularly important loss, and his spell on the side-lines looks to be an extensive one, having sustained a painful knee injury.
But even with these key absentees, Sevilla’s squad is not as strong as it used to be. One plus for the Andalucian club has been the goal-scoring form of Kevin Gameiro, who suffered a dip in form last season with a return of 7, but this year, he has found the net 28 times, including 7 in the Europa League.
Further threats will undoubtedly come from Ever Banega, their midfield maestro at the head of their midfield, as well as a familiar name to Liverpool supporters – Yehven Konoplyanka, who signed on a free transfer during the summer. He was widely tipped to move to Liverpool last year, before the Dnipro owner pulled the plug on the deal.
But they have not lit up La Liga this season. Konoplyanka is a case in point, whose moments of brilliance come and go with the changing of the wind. His return has been somewhat mediocre, with four goals and five assists in La Liga, averaging just over one key pass per game. Coutinho for Liverpool averages double that.
Sevilla have also lost key figures, most notably of course Carlos Bacca. The Colombian forward joined AC Milan for £22.5 million, a huge loss in front of goal, whilst other players, such as Denis Suarez who played for the club on loan, have not returned this season.
The reality is that Liverpool have already beaten the best Spanish side left in the competition, and that was Villareal. The Yellow Submarines have had their best season in half a decade, and have qualified for next season’s Champions League.
Sevilla have also scraped through to the final. Somehow beating Bilbao despite the Basque club having the better of both legs in the quarter finals – helped by a terrible error from their captain Iker Muniain in the first leg, they then squeezed past Shakhtar in the semi-final. Again, they were helped by a highly controversial penalty decision in the first leg, before beating the Ukrainians on home soil, again despite the away side having the better of proceedings.
Liverpool meanwhile have already had to cast aside the tournament favourites, Borussia Dortmund, in dramatic fashion, and they have already beaten the best club Spain have had to offer. Now that they are playing with new found confidence and belief instilled by the arrival of Jürgen Klopp at Anfield, they have every reason to go into this game confident of success.
The Reds will of course need to be wary of their opponents who live and breathe the Europa League. Having won the competition four times in the last ten years, they know how to win Europa League cup finals.
But Liverpool are no European newcomers, of course. The Reds are three times winners themselves of this competition under its previous formats, in 1973, 1976 and most recently 2001. And that’s before the five European Cups are mentioned.
The Reds also have a fantastic record in European cup finals, winning eight of the previous elevens, and those finals against Spanish competition have always ended in triumph for the Merseyside club – against Real Madrid in 1981, and Alaves in a thrilling final in 2001.
Tomorrow night’s fixture at St Jakob Park in Basle will not be a walkover by any means. Sevilla will be determined to make history as the club that have retained the trophy twice consecutively.
Yet they are not the spectre they are made to seem, and underneath the gloss of their past Europa League success, there lies a team that Liverpool, on their day, can easily overcome.