“I bloody love football, don’t I?” David Brent iconically announced to the cameras in hit UK TV show ‘The Office’. Well, so do Sevilla. They bloody love it as well.
But their passion doesn’t merely end at the sport as a whole. Their desires lie deeper, even further than their domestic league in fact. Instead, it’s the Europa League where their attachment is so overwhelmingly strong. They simply can’t get enough.
It’s a romance which dates back almost 15 years, a time frame in which they’ve reached six of the competition’s concluding event, winning all of their previous five.
Middlesbrough, Espanyol, Benfica, Dnipro and Liverpool have all succumbed to Sevilla’s Europa League supremacy. Now, it’s the turn of Antonio Conte’s Inter to enter the cauldron.
The Nerazzurri have returned to their very finest form in Germany over the past month; defeating Getafe, Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk by an aggregate scoreline of 9-1 to reach Friday’s final.
They’re rightly considered the favourites for the competition’s epilogue. This is a Sevilla side which, while blessed with talented individuals and a tremendous track record in Europe’s second showpiece, is also deeply flawed.
Julen Lopetegui’s reputation restoration project in Seville has certainly gone to plan thus far, mind. The former Spain boss, who was famously sacked from his role as La Furia Roja’s string-puller just weeks before the 2018 World Cup, has taken a Sevilla side who finished sixth in La Liga under Pablo Machin in 2018/19 back into the Champions League with a fourth-placed finish.
Since Lopetegui’s arrival, Sevilla have become a side who are heavily reliant on transitioning down the flanks as a primary method of chance creation, while their identity off the ball remains ambiguous. They’re not a relentless, high-pressing side, nor are they an outfit who sit in a deep block and frustrate. It’s somewhere in between, and Lopetegui has taken a more flexible, reactive approach.
Their creative struggles were laid bare in their late quarter-final victory over Wolves when Nuno Espirito Santo set up his side remarkably deep, while pressing problems and issues in defensive transition were on full display against Manchester United last time out.
They were bailed out by Bono brilliance. United prevented the Andalusians from playing out from the back throughout despite their technical proficiency, proved a persistent threat on the break against an ill-protected Sevilla backline, and continued to penetrate their opponent’s defence even when they were in their settled shape.
The Red Devils really should’ve been out of sight before Luuk de Jong’s well-taken winner, but football works in mysterious ways.
And sure, they might be flawed, but in Jules Kounde – who’s particularly stood out in Germany – and Diego Carlos, Sevilla possess a fantastic centre-back pairing and as well an elite controller in the form of Ever Banega, while the dynamic they’ve established down the left flank is certainly a dangerous one.
Sergio Reguilon and Lucas Ocampos – who usually plays on the right but switched flanks for the semi – have a fantastic understanding of one another’s movements and the respective positions they take up. Sevilla will fancy their chances of wreaking a bit of havoc down the left against Danilo D’Ambrosio and Diego Godin with Reguilon’s underlapping runs and crossing ability – even if Godin has enjoyed a mini-resurgence in this Europa League epilogue.
However, you feel this Inter side may be a bridge too far for Lopetegui’s men.
After a stuttering start to calcio’s resumption, Inter rounded off their domestic campaign in emphatic fashion and have continued in a similar vein in Germany – displaying the kind of form which saw them go toe-to-toe with Juventus for the Scudetto in the first half of the campaign.
From a systematic perspective, the Nerazzurri have continued to evolve and adapt under their Italian string-puller.
The automatisms which became predictable midway through the campaign have been persistently updated to maintain a freshness to Inter’s attacking play, and the ways in which they overwhelm opponents through Conte’s pre-determined patterns and combinations are spellbinding.
Their positional play is excellent. Their methods of creating superiorities all over the field are so unique, but they execute Conte’s demands with the utmost ease. A perfect example is Conte’s Stefan de Vrij’s uncommon function in the first phase, while finding ludicrously gifted ball-playing defender Alessandro Bastoni marauding into the final third is a regular occurrence in your typical Nerazzurri fixture.
De Vrij and Bastoni were two key cogs in helping Inter form the stoutest defence in Serie A last term, and the latter has been one of the stars of this Europa League finale. The return of Nicolo Barella to his dynamic, industrious early-season best has been crucial as well, while we’ve run out of superlatives to praise Romelu Lukaku. The fulcrum in Conte’s system.
Lukaku’s scored in ten consecutive Europa League matches, with his semi-final brace taking his season tally up to an astounding 33 in all competitions. He’ll have the chance to top Ronaldo’s 34 strikes in his majestic debut 1997/98 campaign at the club, with the Belgian hoping to round off his maiden term in a similar vein to El Fenomeno – who churned out that performance in the UEFA Cup final.
It remains to be seen whether Edmond Tapsoba will ever be the same after his quarter-final humbling as a result of Lukaku’s sheer brilliance.
But Kounde and Carlos won’t merely have to deal with the threat of Lukaku on Friday night. No, no, no.
That’s right, Lula are back in full cry, baby!
Lautaro Martinez’s subtle but impressive showing against Bayer Leverkusen was followed up by probably his best performance of 2020 in the semi-final. Amid an emphatically taken header and elegantly placed second, El Toro displayed the ingenious combination play, dreamy first touch, bullish nature and telepathic understanding with Lukaku which encapsulates his multi-faceted profile.
Conte’s Nerazzurri are at their best when their strike duo reaches a state of total harmony, and if that’s the case against Sevilla on Friday night, Lopetegui’s flawed outfit simply won’t stand a chance.