Benfica, Sevilla lock Europa League final berths after testy nail-biters

Juventus’ dream of playing a European final in their home stadium is now officially over. They were upset by Benfica in the second leg of Thursday’s Europa League semifinals, which ended 0-0 on the day and 2-1 on aggregate. The Portuguese will face Sevilla in Turin on May 14, who knocked out Valencia with an improbably late winner, making it 3-3 on aggregate after the home side had overcome a 2-0 deficit heading into the game and even gone ahead for a spell.

Early on in their game with Juve, Benfica were keen, hoping to replicate the 3rd minute goal that had served them so well in the first leg, allowing them to eke out a 2-1 win that cut against the grain of that game. But from kickoff, they proved very prone to Juve’s quick breakaways. The mature Italian side knew exactly when to break forward en masse. And they knew that they had the away goal in their back pockets, should they need it.

But the Italians nevertheless needed to score. While they slowly asserted themselves, that liberating goal proved elusive. The maestro Andrea Pirlo took some dangerous shots from afar in the opening minutes. And towards the end of the first half, Juve started to create some real chances. But they failed to connect, most notably in the 43rd minute, when Carlos Tevez should have been a tad more alert on the free kick from Pirlo, which Leonardo Bonucci headed on. The Argentinian couldn’t quite get onto the end of the ball with his desperate lunge. Three minutes later, Arturo Vidal didn’t get his diving header quite right. Yet it seemed to be bouncing right to the far top corner, where Luisao rose high to head it off the line.

Juve had outshot their opponents 9-1 in the opening stanza. And it was much of the same in the second act, wherein Benfica mustered no greater aspiration than to maintain the status quo. But again, Juve never managed to capitalize on all of those scoring opportunities. In the 62nd minute, Pirlo whipped his free kick at the top corner as a pack waited for his service at the opposing end — Jan Oblak only just managed to save it.

Even after Enzo Perez was sent off for Benfica in the 67th minute, Juve couldn’t force a breakthrough. Pablo Osvaldo seemed to have the winner in the 82nd minute, but Paul Pogba — who would later kick Ezequiel Garay in the face on a misguided bicycle kick, reducing Benfica to nine men — was ruled offside. And so it was the stodgy Portuguese who moved on.

Before their return leg in the other series, Valencia manager Juan Antonio Pizzi had declared that if his side could get an early goal, they should go for four in all. That would comfortably see them past visitors Sevilla, who had won out 2-0 at home the week prior.

Thanks to their aggressiveness in a scrappy game in which elbows and hard tackles flew every which way, Valencia got exactly that. Sevilla look to prey on the counter — a luxury they could indulge in, given their aggregate lead. But it backfired.

In the 14th minute, Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli set up an attack, laid the ball off to Eduardo Vargas, was played the ball down the right side of the box by Vargas. Then the Algerian cut inside and saw his quick shot take a deflection and beat Beto through his raised arms to make it 1-0.

By the 26th minute, the series was all tied up. Juan Bernat swung in a good hard cross to striker Jonas, who headed. Beto pushed it onto the underside of his bar but it came straight back down and trickled in off his back — an unfortunate own goal. Just then, it looked like Pizzi’s words might have been prescient.

Sevilla got a chance to turn their fate around a little later. But Valencia’s Diego Alves came up with an immense save as Juan Antonio Reyes hoped to slide a backheeled ball by Carlos Bacca into a gaping net, only for the Brazilian goalkeeper to come soaring out of nowhere.

It seemed that Valencia had pulled off another big comeback when a corner caromed around in Sevilla’s box and Jeremy Mathieu swept it home in the 71st minute. In the quarterfinals, they had somehow overcome a 3-0 aggregate deficit to FC Basel going into their home game, but emerged victorious 5-3 after extra time.

But such an upset was not to be this time around. Instead, Sevilla were the beneficiaries of the late heroics. In the 94th minute, with a mere minute of added time remaining, Federico Fazio headed on a throw-in. Stephane Mbia, the hardy defensive midfielder leapt, towered over the defense, and banged home the winner with his forehead.

As such, it will not be Juventus and Sevilla who will dispute the final at Juventus Stadium, as you might have assumed for some time during the night, but Benfica and Sevilla. Theirs were unlikely wins, but no less deserved for their cunning.