The UEFA Europa League semifinals commence on Thursday. And as elite European soccer continues to contract to a small club of rich and powerful teams who dispute the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s second trophy is taking on increased importance for all the others.
The vase-like Europa League cup is now no longer a mere consolation prize for those who couldn’t make it into the big tournament or crashed out in the group stage. Instead, it has become the vindication and affirmation of a fine season. That’s true for every team still in the hunt.
Juventus, who host Benfica in the first leg of their semifinals (live, Thursday, FOX Sports 1, 3 p.m. ET), were once one of the juggernauts of the game. They have reclaimed their spot atop the Italian pile, following an exile to Serie B as punishment for a match-fixing scandal in 2006, and will soon win their third consecutive league title. But after six appearances in the final of the UEFA Champions League dating back to 1983, they are no longer relevant at Europe’s highest level. Yes, they made the quarterfinals last season, but they were destroyed by eventual champions Bayern Munich there. This year, they didn’t even get out of the group stage, relegating them to the Europa League.
As such, their decline is symbolic for that of the Italian league as a whole. Lacking privatized stadiums, decent television deals or sustainable attendance levels, they are falling behind. The best players are no longer drawn to Italy. The salaries have fallen and so too has the appeal of the biggest clubs.
That isn’t to say that they are a bad team, of course. Their passage to the semifinals was fairly straightforward. Trabzonspor and Olympique Lyonnais were overcome with relative ease. Fiorentina weren’t able to block their path either. Gianluigi Buffon remains the stalwart in goal and his place among the greatest goalkeepers of all time is assured. Giorgio Chiellini is a world-class defender. In midfield, Arturo Vidal, Kwadwo Asamoah and Paul Pogba are top drawer. And forwards Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez are efficient and diligent.
That makes The Old Lady the favorites over Benfica, another storied side from a dilapidated league. The Portuguese lost the final to Chelsea last year. But they might not get that far this time around. Certainly, they are a stable and well-run side who haven’t lost a league game since their very first match of the season, on Aug. 18, and their run to the semis included an impressive 5-3 aggregate win over Tottenham Hotspur. But they might simply lack the horses. Other than midfielder Nicolas Gaitan and forward Oscar Cardozo, they have no real difference makers.
In the other semis, Valencia travel to Sevilla (live, Thursday, FOX Sports 2, 3 p.m. ET) and here too, it concerns big clubs who were left behind in the modern game’s arms race. While Barcelona and Real Madrid have outspent the rest of the Spanish league by multiples, Atletico Madrid have managed to butt in this year, through savvy management. But Valencia and Sevilla, regional powerhouses both, have fallen away from the top.
Sevilla are currently out of the Champions League spots in fifth place in La Liga. Valencia are out of the European places altogether, lingering in eighth. Financial problems are endemic for both, as is common outside of Spain’s top two, who make no effort to spread the riches that are available to them around.
Sevilla had to sell their two best players, winger Jesus Navas and striker Alvaro Negredo to Manchester City this summer. But Rafael Bacca proved a worthy replacement for the latter. And in Ivan Rakitic, they have a playmaker who has guided them through their fraught run in this tournament. In each of the past three rounds, Sevilla either tied or lost the first leg. They drew Maribor 2-2 before winning 2-1 at home. In the Round of 16, they lost their home game to cross-town rivals Real Betis 0-2 before evening the score away and winning on penalties. And then, in the quarterfinals, they lost to FC Porto 1-0 away before rampaging to a 4-1 win at home.
Valencia are no strangers to making things hard on themselves. They, too, lost their key striker in Roberto Soldado, who went to Tottenham last summer. Their knockout stage advances past Dynamo Kiev and Ludogorets were straightforward. But when they lost the first leg of their quarterfinals bout with FC Basel 3-0 in Switzerland, all hope seemed gone. But a week later, they destroyed the Swiss 5-0 at home, with the latter two goals coming in extra time, courtesy of a hat trick by 20-year-old striker Paco Alcacer.
Sevilla will need to avoid another first leg disappointment, because it’s unlikely that they can recover a fourth time. As for Juventus, if they can do the business against Benfica at home, they’ll give themselves a good chance to play the final there, at their new Juventus Stadium, on May 17.