When Bela Guttmann resigned as manager after being denied a bonus for winning a second successive European Cup in 1962, it’s said he vowed that the club would not win another European title for 100 years. When Benfica lost on penalties to Sevilla on Wednesday night, it was its eighth defeat in eight finals since. Sevilla, having held out heroically at times to force the game to penalties, won its third Europa League in eight years.
By the time the penalty kick shootout began, Benfica’s defeat felt inevitable. The agent was Beto, the Sevilla keeper, who saved low to his right to keep out Oscar Cardozo’s kick and then low to his left to dey Rodrigo. For Benfica and Jorge Jesus, it was a second successive defeat in a Europa League final, and a second successive defeat after a game it had dominated. Shot after shot went wide, over or was blocked, Federico Fazio and Nicolas Pareja were superb — apart form one brief spell — at centerback, and guts and resolve and organization — and the curse — had won the day.
Benfica had been expected to field a 4-3-3, but Miralem Sulejmani, the gifted but erratic Serbian winger was deployed rather deeper than that would suggest, on the right side of midfield. The result was that he had space in front of him, acceleration room that he twice used to his advantage in the opening quarter hour. His first dart was ended by a foot in the belly from Federico Fazio; the second, when he was almost set free by a superb pass from Lima, was ended by a crude late challenge form left back Alberto Moreno. Both earned the Sevilla defenders bookings but the second foul sent him cartwheeling and he landed awkwardly on his shoulder, a blow that forced him off after 25 minutes to be replaced by Andre Almeida. A game that had begun brightly developed a tetchy edge and Benfica’s Guilherem Siqueira was booked for a robust challenge on Stephane Mbia.
The only clear chances of the first half fell the way of Benfica. First, after 14 minutes, Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay seemed startled — as he had reason to be — when Beto pushed out a deep free kick to him at the back post. Unable to react sharply enough to get proper purchase and with a narrow angle anyway, he prodded the ball goalwards, where it was hacked away. Maxi Pareira forced Beto into a reflex slap of a save with a close-range header. Then, in first half injury-time, Sevilla — or Fazio at least — seemed to switch off. Rodrigo darted by Argentinian and drew a save from Beto with a shot that was rather nearer the goalkeeper than it probably should have been. Then a farcical mix-up between Fazio and Nicolas Pareja presented possession to Nicolas Gaitan. But he never quite got a bouncing ball under control though and, although he forced the ball past Beto under pressure from his compatriot, it scooted wide to leave him appealing vainly for a penalty.
Sevilla’s defensive line looked vulnerable every time Benfica applied pressure and, three minutes after half time it took a remarkable double block from Pareja to keep it at 0-0. First he covered behind Beto to smack the ball clear after Lima, finding space on the left side of the box had beaten Beto with an angled shot, then, as the ball was returned to the middle, he stuck out a leg to turn Rodrigo’s effort away.
For Benfica, the pattern must have looked awfully familiar. This was just what had happened last season, when it had much the better of the final against Chelsea only to succumb at the last to Branislav Ivanovic’s header. The thought, the fear, almost perceptibly swept over them that the curse was striking again. Sevilla, for the first time, began to look threatening. Jose Antonio Reyes, once of Arsenal, shot wide after running in to a delightful dinked through-pass from Ivan Rakitic, then slapped a first-time effort straight at Jan Oblak after the ball had broken to him 12 yards out.
A superb crossfield ball and a fine first touch from Maxi Pereira created a shooting chance for Lima but he missed his kick. He tried to blame Pareja, who had come clattering across to cover — as he had all night — but the truth was he had been thwarted more by Benfica’s mounting anxiety than by a corporeal opponent.
Lima had a dipping shot superbly tipped over. Garay headed over a gaping net, then volleyed over, but still Sevilla, heroically and fortuitously, held out. As Benfica committed more and more to the attack in extra time, Carlos Bacca sprang clear onto to drill his shot across the face of goal. Unai Emery, red elbow patches aflutter, charged form his bench thinking it was in before retreating, head in hands.
And so it went to penalties, when those nerves, that anxiety, the curse, got the better of Benfica.
"Benfica deserved to be in the final and so did we," said Sevilla coach Unai Emery after the match. "At times the game was totally even, put by the end they were doing most of the pushing. You could tell our players were suffering from fatigue and physical discomfort but this team has learned how to suffer."
Emry added: "We have learned how to stay strong and so we were ready for that. My family, my friends, the coaching staff deserve it for the hard work and dedication. And the team have stayed united during difficult periods. It’s the result of a lot of people’s hard work."