Valencia. Sevilla. Benfica. Juventus. Four instantly recognisable names of European football and the final four in this season’s Europa League. Three games stand between these teams and glory but which of them will get the glory?
Serie A’s dominant force over the last almost three seasons are continuing their domination as they look set to complete a hat-trick of titles this season. At the time of writing, they sit eight points clear with five games to go having lost just twice all season. Yet, for all of their league domination, they have been unconvincing in cup competitions both domestic and European. An early Coppa Italia exit at the hands of Roma came not long after a poor Champions League group where they dropped down to the Europa League after winning just one of their six games. Performances in the Europa League have not been convincing either. Trabzonspor gave Juve a few scares before ultimately losing out. Fiorentina had Juve on the edge in the round of 16 before a moment of quality from the timeless Andrea Pirlo sent Juve through. Even their quarter final victory over Lyon was close with the French side almost getting a result in Juventus Stadium. Juventus, to their credit, have made it to this stage though despite the scares.
Juve also have by far the strongest squad in the competition. Built around a defence containing Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci with the legendary Gianluigi Buffon behind them, Juve are a formidable side. Andrea Pirlo pulls the strings from midfield, aided by the tireless work of Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba and supplying a strike force including a reinvigorated Carlos Tevez and Spanish international Fernando Llorente. Add in players the quality of Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephen Lichtsteiner and, on paper at least, Juventus have a squad that is capable of not only winning the Europa League but challenging in the later stages of the Champions League. They are without doubt the favourites to win.
Portugal’s dominant side this season are well on their way to winning their first league title since 2010, sitting 7 points clear of second place Sporting Lisbon with just three games to go. They have lost just the once in the league and sit in the semi-finals of both the League Cup and Portuguese Cup and have to play bitter rivals Porto in both. Like Juventus, their Champions League was disappointing from the view that they ended up in the Europa League but, in reality, their exit was only via the head-to-head record with a solid Olympiacos side. They have breezed through the Europa League though, easily swatting aside PAOK in the round of 32 and AZ Alkmaar in the quarter finals. There was a slight scare in the round of 16 against Tottenham but not enough to stop Benfica from comfortably progressing to this stage.
It’s hard not to say that Benfica have the second best squad at this stage of the Europa League. With Luisao and Ezequiel Garay providing a solid foundation for the side, they have a number of exciting and deadly attacking players. Nicolas Gaitan is a proven threat from the wing while Eduardo Salvio excites on the opposite flank. Oscar Cardozo provides the proven goal threat up front with Rodrigo and Lima providing extra mobility and goal scoring potential up top. Add in the emergence of young Serb (and summer signing) Lazar Markovic as an attacking force and Benfica are a real threat to any side. There are question marks over the squad though. Maxi Pereira is and has been the first choice undisputed right back for Benfica but he has a tendency to be a bit of a hothead and pick up needless yellow and red cards for petulance. Also, with the departure of anchor man Nemanja Matic to Chelsea in January, the midfield lacks some physicality and solidity which could leave the lack of pace of Garay and Luisao exposed against good sides.
Currently sitting fifth in La Liga, Sevilla are 6 points off of the Champions League places in Spain with five games to go. They didn’t fare so well in the Copa del Rey, falling at the first hurdle to second tier Racing Santander. The Europa League has been a mixed bag for Sevilla this season. After blasting through the qualifying rounds against Mladost Podgorica of Montenegro and Slask Wroclaw of Poland (scoring 18 goals in the process), they qualified from their group as winners and undefeated. After squeezing past Slovakian side Maribor by the odd goal in seven and fierce rivals Real Betis on penalties, Sevilla swept aside Porto with a crushing second leg victory in Seville booking their semis berth.
On paper at least, Sevilla’s squad is not as impressive as Juventus’ or Benfica’s. That is not to say they lack quality though. Federico Fazio is a good defender while Marko Marin and Ivan Rakitic are excellent playmakers. Jose Antonio Reyes on his day is unplayable while Kevin Gameiro is a proven goal scorer. The star of their season has undoubtedly been Colombian striker Carlos Bacca. A summer signing, Bacca has torn up La Liga defences this season and many of Sevilla’s hopes rest on him. There are some concerns with the squad the main one being depth. Back-up options include Daniel Carrico and Stephane M’bia both signed on loan after poor spells at relegated Premier League sides last season. However, there is an air of solidity to the Sevilla squad overall.
Currently in eighth place in La Liga, Valencia has had a mixed season. A managerial change midway through has brought little to shout about bar the semi-final appearance. Their Copa del Rey hopes were dashed by Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 and their European campaign has been a bit sketchy at times too. They bounced back from an opening day humbling at home to Swansea to win their group before easing past Dynamo Kiev and Ludogorets in the rounds of 32 and 16. They were on the edge of elimination against Basel in the quarters after a 3-0 defeat in Switzerland but a 5-0 demolition at the Mestalla saw them through in the end.
Valencia’s squad is definitely the weakest of the four due mostly to the financial issues that have crippled them in the past few years. Stars like David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata have been sold in recent years to raise funds and they’ve been replaced by players like Philippe Senderos. There is some real talent in the Valencia squad though. Diego Alves and Vicente Guaita are two excellent goalkeepers that provide a solid base while captain Ricardo Costa is a good defender. Sofiane Feghouli is a creative spark with Eduardo Vargas providing some more excitement on loan from Napoli but the main talent in the squad is young striker Paco Alcacer. At just 20 years old, the marksman’s hat trick against Basel was integral to Valencia’s progression and his seven goals in the Europa League make him the highest scoring player left in the tournament and only one behind top scorer Jonathan Soriano of Red Bull Salzburg. There are some question marks over the defence and the fact that they are consistently inconsistent.
This is titled “Who Will Win The Europa League?” after all so not making a prediction would make this all completely pointless. Therefore, I fancy Juventus to just sneak past Benfica in the first semi on either away goals or penalties to set up a final with Sevilla who will beat Valencia by at least two clear goals on aggregate. The final will see Juventus triumph in their stadium 2-1 after extra time to win their first European trophy since the Intertoto Cup in 1999.
Do you agree with this prediction? If not, who do you have as winning the Europa League? Let us know in the comments below.