Benfica will be out to end 52 years of European hurt and continue their incredible season when they face off with Sevilla in the final of the Europa League in Turin.
The Lisbon giants’ record of seven-straight defeats in European finals is so startling that it is fully deserving of a good, old curse story. And, sure enough, this tale provides one.
Legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann led Benfica to back-to-back European Cups in 1961 and 1962, breaking the stranglehold Real Madrid had held on the competition since its inception in 1955. But Guttmann then left the club after a pay dispute and departed with a parting shot that would go onto increasingly haunt Benfica ever since: he declared that the club would not win a European trophy for another 100 years. More than half a century later, the curse lives on, and does so despite regular pilgrimages to Guttmann’s grave in the hope of it being lifted.
Perhaps last season was the most painful loss of all. Branislav Ivanovic’s injury-time header gave Chelsea a win in the Europa League final and came just days after Porto scored a similarly late winner against Benfica on the penultimate day of the Liga season to decisively move ahead in the league table. More pain was to come when Vitoria Guimaraes scored twice in the final 10 minutes to turnaround the Portuguese Cup final. A possible treble had been eviscerated.
Their response from that disappointment has been remarkable and could lead to the raising of a quadruple of trophies by the end of this campaign. The Liga title has already been secured as has the Taca da Liga (League Cup) with the final of the Taca de Portugal to come this weekend. Before that, though, there is real belief that 2014 will finally be the year that they taste European success once more.
Benfica have already upset the narrative by knocking out Juventus in the semifinals and preventing the Italian champions from competing in the final in their own stadium. Since being eliminated from the Champions League, Jorge Jesus has led his team to the final of the Europa League unbeaten, negotiating ties with Greek outfit PAOK Salonika, Premier League big guns Tottenham, Dutch side AZ Alkmaar and then Juventus. Just four goals have been conceded in those eight matches, and their defensive resilience, led by former Brazil international Luisao and current Argentina international Ezequiel Garay, was shown in the second leg of their semifinal in Turin when they played half of the second period with 10 men.
Trying to break through that back line back at the Juventus Stadium on Wednesday will be a Sevilla side who claimed their place in the final in even more dramatic fashion. It was fellow Spaniards Valencia who were heading toward the final having turned a 2-0 first-leg loss into a 3-2 aggregate lead in the second leg, before Stephane Mbia popped up with a 94th minute headed winner to send Sevilla to the final.
It was a personal triumph for coach Unai Emery, who had been let go by Valencia two years earlier. The 42-year-old, who had a short spell at Spartak Moscow before taking up the reins at Sevilla last summer, has done a fine job. Despite losing the club’s two star players last summer, Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, Emery has led Sevilla to fifth in La Liga and a European final. An impressive achievement, despite the fact that failing to win their last three league matches has cost them a chance at a spot in the Champions League.
Colombian striker Carlos Bacca has covered admirably for the loss of Negredo, scoring 14 goals in his first La Liga season and adding four more in the Europa League. The star of the show, though, is Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian playmaker has been both creator and scorer this season, providing 15 goals and a further 13 assists.
Benfica will thus rue an injury that keeps defensive midfielder Ljubomir Fejsa out of the final. Ruben Amorim has performed admirably in the Serbian’s absence, however, and will be required to do so again if Rakitic is to be kept quiet. Jesus’s options will also be depleted with suspension ruling out key midfielder Enzo Perez, and dangerous young winger Lazar Markovic.
There is plenty of reason then to think that Sevilla can add to the back-to-back UEFA Cups won in 2006 and 2007. However, while they have ultimately endured disappointment, Benfica have an incredible amount of European experience in recent years. They should put that to good use in Turin and, inspired a solid defense, the creative talents of Nicolas Gaitan and the forward tandem of Rodrigo and Lima, Benfica have the goods to finally end the curse of Guttmann.
Prediction: Benfica 2-1 Sevilla