By Alan Feehely l @azulfeehely
Tenacity. Cohesion. Teamwork. This Sevilla team has it all. Inter were much heralded going into their Europa League final against Sevilla, with many feeling that the Italian side’s plethora of individual talent would prove too much for their Spanish counterparts – Julen Lopetegui’s hardworking team proved otherwise.
This has been an excellent season for Sevilla. They underwent a significant overhaul in the summer just past, with sporting director Monchi returning alongside new coach Lopetegui and a variety of new signings. The Andalusians finished fourth in La Liga, level on points with third-placed Atlético Madrid and ten clear of fifth-placed Villarreal, and have now earned a deserved piece of silverware to mark a superb campaign that will inspire great confidence for next season.
Not that silverware is new for this club. This is their sixth Europa League title in 15 seasons, a golden period that is unarguably the greatest of their history. All of these have been earned with Monchi at the helm – he is a pivotal figure in a club unable to compete with Barcelona or Real Madrid in terms of budget. They instead rely on a strategy and intelligence that has worked in congruence with an incomparably passionate fanbase from Spain’s hottest city. Es una cosa andaluza.
Sevilla went into the game on a club-record 20 game unbeaten run, while Inter were intent on winning their first trophy since 2011. It was the latter that struck the first blow – Romelu Lukaku broke forward with speed and strength, drawing a clumsy challenge from Diego Carlos in the box that led the Brazilian centre-back to concede a penalty for the third game running. Lukaku stepped up to take it and did not err, slotting his effort into the bottom left corner of the net to score in his eleventh consecutive Europa League game.
Sevilla responded well to going one-down, however, and composed themselves with intelligent build-up play. Before long, they were back on level terms. Lucas Ocampos played through club stalwart Jesús Navas down the right wing, with the veteran full-back pulling back a cross for Luuk de Jong, whose header beat Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanović. De Jong had been on an eleven-game drought before he scored against Manchester United in the semi-final, but repaid Lopetegui’s faith in him with aplomb, scoring his and Sevilla’s second just after the half-hour mark.
This time, it was Éver Banega who provided the crucial assist. The Argentine playmaker, playing his last match for Sevilla before he joins Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab, whipped in a superb free-kick from deep to meet De Jong in the air, whose guided header from the back post looped past a helpless Handanović. The Andalusians didn’t have the lead for long, however, as Inter equalised moments later. Marcelo Brozović dropped in a free-kick from a similar position to Banega’s to find Diego Godín, the former Atléti stalwart who had made a smart run across the face of goal, in the air to direct his header past Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.
Sevilla almost offered another reply on the stroke of half-time when another Banega free-kick was met by an Ocampos header, but his Argentine compatriot’s effort was tipped over the bar by an outstretched Handanović. With 15 minutes left, Sevilla had their winner. Banega played another clipped ball into the box from a free-kick. Inter dealt with it, but it fell only as far as Carlos – the centre-back executed an acrobatic overhead kick that took a deflection from Lukaku before nestling in the back of the net. Inter pressed in search of an equaliser, with Alexis Sanchez coming close – a scramble inside the box led to the Chilean poking an effort goal bound only for Jules Koundé to beat it away off the line.
But Inter couldn’t come back from Carlos’s knockout blow. The Brazilian had tears in his eyes in the final moments, so thankful that his conceded penalty hadn’t sounded the death knell for the team that has taken his career to the next level. He’s been linked with Manchester City and Liverpool this summer, but has underlined his happiness in Andalusia – he, like his teammates, have bought into this project. They celebrated with great joy when club captain Navas lifted the Europa League title above his head as the club’s hymn blared in the empty RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne – but you just had the feeling that this group of players, and everyone connected to the club, were intimately linked to the celebration back home in the capital of Andalusia.