Liverpool enter Wednesday’s Europa League final in Basel with a trophy to end Jurgen Klopp’s first season and a place in next season’s Champions League tantalizingly close. But one huge hurdle still remains. It comes in the form of the club that has made the competition their own in recent years: Sevilla.
The sheer number of records on the line for Sevilla in the final illustrate their incredible dominance of Europe’s secondary competition. Victory would make the Spanish club the first team ever to win three consecutive Europa League/UEFA Cup titles. It would also make them the first club since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win a major European competition in three successive seasons. Having lifted the trophy, then as the UEFA Cup, in 2006 and 2007, Sevilla can also become the first club to lift the trophy five times. To complete the collection, Unai Emery, who joined Sevilla in January 2013, can become the first coach to win the competition three times.
Sevilla's run to the final this season has been even more remarkable because of their poor form in La Liga. Emery’s side completed their league season with a 3-1 defeat to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday to finish in seventh place. After finishing fourth last season it represents a significant letdown, especially coming on top of their elimination from the Champions League group stage. But the early exit has provided the opportunity, along with Sunday's Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, to still make their season a major success.
There has been one negative aspect of their season, though, that cannot be overlooked. In 19 road matches in La Liga, Sevilla failed to win a single one. Their form on the road in Europe wasn’t much better. They lost all three games away from the Sánchez Pizjuán in the Champions League and in four Europa League games their only win came against another Spanish side, Athletic Bilbao.
Sevilla do, however, have recent experience of the final venue, Basel’s atmospheric St. Jakob-Park, where they garnered a goalless result en route to a victory in their last-16 tie. It is not long ago, either, that Liverpool visited the Swiss city. Their memories, though, will be far less positive. It was just last season that the Merseysiders lost 1-0 in Basel, a result that ultimately cost them progress from the Champions League group phase.
That, though, was under Brendan Rodgers. And the tail end of the Northern Irishman’s reign now feels like a lifetime away. While Liverpool could only finish eighth in the Premier League, Klopp has reinvigorated the whole club, a fact that has been most evident in the Europa League knockout phase. In wins over old rivals Manchester United, Klopp’s former club Borussia Dortmund and high-flying Spanish outfit Villarreal, the fabled special Anfield atmosphere was in full evidence, something which the team both fed off and helped feed with some thrilling performances.
It is a run that has brought memories flooding back of Liverpool’s past European glories. As well as five European Cups, Liverpool have also lifted the Europa League, then as the UEFA Cup, on three occasions. Their most recent victory came in 2001, also against Spanish opposition, when beating Alaves 5-4 in a breathless encounter decided by a golden goal in extra time.
Liverpool don’t have any players remaining from that triumph, but in their ranks in Basel they will have Alberto Moreno, who won the Europa League with Sevilla two years ago. Liverpool’s traveling party have also been boosted by the presence of striker Divock Origi, although he remains a doubt to feature after spending close to a month out with an ankle injury. Captain Jordan Henderson is also back available having made his return from injury off the bench in Sunday’s draw with West Brom on the final day of the Premier League season.
Klopp made wholesale changes to his side in that fixture, something which Sevilla also did as they closed the season out with defeat at Athletic Bilbao. While he has no new injuries, Emery will be without defender Benoit Tremoulinas and midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli due to long-term injuries. José Antonio Reyes has traveled, though, despite undergoing an appendix operation late last month.
Prediction: This has all the makings of an engrossing final. Liverpool have produced stirring performances in the last two rounds of the competition, attacking with pace and precision, while Sevilla are capable of playing in an attractive, attacking manner. Both teams also can be leaky at the back, meaning goals are unlikely to be in short supply. It is a finely balanced matchup, too, and could well go all the way to extra time and even penalties. Liverpool will certainly have to be on alert for the penalty-box prowess of French striker Kevin Gameiro and Argentine playmaker Ever Banega, but, helped by Sevilla’s woeful record on the road, the Merseysiders might just ride Klopp’s wave of infectious positivity all the way to the trophy.
Predicted score: Liverpool 3-2 Sevilla
Betting odds (via Oddschecker)
Liverpool win: 7/5
Sevilla win: 11/5