Europa semifinals take dramatic twists after competitive first legs

Benfica and Sevilla positioned themselves well for a spot in the UEFA Europa League final on Thursday night by winning the first legs of their respective semifinals. Benfica beat Juventus 2-1 and Sevilla prevailed over Valencia 2-0.

If Juventus were supposed to be the favorites for this game, Benfica paid that designation no heed, going ahead in just the second minute. Miralem Sulejmani swung his corner right onto the head of Ezequiel Garay, who aimed his effort so well from over by the penalty spot that it was out of the reach of the outstretched Gianluigi Buffon.

And for the ensuing 20 minutes, Juve had no answer for Benfica’s very high pressing. At length, Juve gained a foothold and started to carve out a few chances through the runs of Sebastian Lichtsteiner up the right and Carlos Tevez around the box. They came close a few times, but couldn’t equalize before the half.

Early in the second half, the Italians seized the bulk of the chances and control of the game. And while Enzo Perez probably deserved to be awarded a penalty after Martin Caceres bumped him down in the box with his backside, Benfica got no call. And so Juventus’ campaign for the equalizer proceeded.

It was, funnily enough, a striker who hadn’t score in Europe in five years who ended up getting Juve’s goal. Carlos Tevez, who last tallied a continental goal for Manchester City in April 2009, received the ball from Kwadwo Asamoah, who had hurtled up the left flank. The Argentinian juked past the otherwise excellent Luisao and poked his finish through Artur’s legs. It was a goal that benefit from a fortuitous bounce or two, but that was no less deserved for the away side.

But Benfica’s raucous home crowd, in the end, got what they had come for. In the 84th minute, Ivan Cavaleiro stepped over a ball at the edge of the box and Lima popped into the space and hammered his shot into the top corner of the helpless Buffon’s net. That registered the final score at 2-1, courtesy of a massive late save by Artur on Claudio Marchisio’s effort.

The Portuguese will have to travel to Turin next week, for the return date. And Juventus has lost just three times at Juventus Stadium since it opened three years ago. If the Italians manage to overturn their deficit, they’€™ll get to play the final on home soil on May 14.

In the other semifinal tilt, it was clear from the outset that Sevilla would be the aggressors on their home turf. They tried to hit striker Carlos Bacca on the run with through balls or passes over the top from the start. He wasted a few promising looks early on though, while Paco Alcacer would, on occasion, instigate the only danger posed by Valencia at the other end.

In the 33rd minute, Sevilla broke through. Stephane Mbia found himself unmarked — and offside both on the initial play and when it was nodded on to him by Daniel Carrico — at the second post when a free kick made it to him there. No flag went up though. And after he mis-hit his initial effort, he back-heeled his follow-up attempt past Vicente Guaita for a rather wondrous sort of goal.

Just three minutes later, Bacca finally put his stamp on the game. He freed himself for a shot from just inside the box on a clever give-and-go with Vitolo and calmly slotted his finish out of Guaita’s reach to make it 2-0.

From there on out, the game got no less physical and scrappy as these two Spanish rivals pursued continental glory. Bacca was denied by Guaita on a point-blank shot in the 56th minute and in the 78th minute, Kevin Gameiro’€™s shot was blocked by Javi Fuego’s arm in the box and the French Sevilla striker perhaps deserved a penalty. It sure did look like Fuego’s arm shouldn’t have been quite where it was.

Valencia, meanwhile, wouldn’t produce a properly good look — discounting Alcacer’s half-chance a while earlier — until the 87th minute. Jonas took a great turn to free himself in the box but his shot was right at goalkeeper Beto. Eduardo Vargas headed his effort off the bar on a fine Pablo Piatto cross.

And so Valencia return home with a lot of work to do, and that ticket to Turin perhaps out of reach.