Captivating Europa finishes in store after competitive first legs
With the UEFA Champions League semifinals in the books, Thursday’s second legs of the Europa League semis promise to be just as captivating. Juventus hope to overturn their 2-1 loss to Benfica in Lisbon from last week and reach the final that will be played in their own stadium (live, FOX Sports 1, Thursday, 2:30 p.m. ET). Sevilla seek to maintain their 2-0 lead over Valencia in the other game (live, FOX Sports 2, 2:30 p.m. ET).
Most of the attention will be cast on Turin, where European juggernauts Juventus hope to make it so that they can play another continental game there before the season is out — the final on May 14. But in their first leg last Thursday, Benfica took an early lead, had their backs against the wall for most of the game, gave up an equalizer to Carlos Tevez in the 73rd minute but then got the winner from Lima with an 84th minute wonder-strike that nabbed them the smash-and-grab win.
And so Juve will have to win and keep the upper hand on away goals. Manager Antonio Conte is rightly confident that the home crowd will be a factor. In their three years at Juventus Stadium, the Old Lady has lost just three times. "I want on Thursday for our supporters to create a fiery cauldron in the stadium, just as Benfica’s fans did in Lisbon last week," Conte told the Italian press. "We are going to play with 12 men on Thursday, I am convinced of it. Benfica had better beware because the fans are going to enter the fray."
Conte’s counterpart, the combustible Jorge Jesus acknowledges that edge. "Playing at the Juventus Stadium is an important advantage for them," he told TuttoSport. "But it’s also true that all the pressure is on Juventus. They can’t get it wrong the year that the Europa League final is in their home stadium. All we have to do is repeat the first leg performance."
Both teams are having a season of highs. Benfica were recently crowned Portuguese champions and are in the Portuguese cup final. As such, a treble is still in play for them. Juve are on the cusp of a third straight Serie A title, having taken an 8-point lead over second-placed AS Roma, who have been taking many plaudits. This has irked Conte. "I hear people say Roma are having a stratospheric season," he said. "I can’t find adjectives for ours."
Juve do have a major disadvantage against Benfica, though. The Italians played a league game on Monday whereas the Portuguese had the entire weekend off. But then Juve should have midfield maestro Arturo Vidal back from injury whereas one of Benfica’s own stars, Nicolas Gaitan, is still doubtful.
In the other game, neither team will tread on the field with much confidence taken from the past weekend. Valencia lost to leaders Atletico Madrid 1-0 at home; Sevilla lost to Athletic Bilbao 3-1 on the road. That knocked Sevilla out of the Champions League spots and Valencia’s chances of claiming the final European place are now slim. Since neither team were in the Copa del Rey final, this game represents their chance to take anything meaningful from this season.
"All the things we did badly today, we must do well at Valencia," Sevilla manager Unai Emery, who managed Valencia from 2008 through 2012, told media after the loss to Atletico. "It’s too important a game for us not to focus all our energy on it."
That makes it sound like Sevilla don’t have a 2-0 lead from the first leg in their back pocket on the way up to Valencia. They do. But sometimes in these all-Spanish affairs, the goals come easy.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, Valencia’s manager, certainly hopes so, even though he is without his young prodigy, forward Paco Alcacer, who was suspended by a silly yellow card late in the first leg. "What we’re proposing, including ahead of the game, is to invite our fans to see a spectacle where we have our sentiment in play and we’re the representatives of that in the game," Pizzi told InsideSpanishFootball.com, like the oratory marvel that he is. "The only thing that interests me about this tie, is that we finish it with a difference that allows us to be in Turin, on May 14."
"To make a comeback," Pizzi continued — and we’re just going to stand back and let him talk here — "We must have patience, persistence, play with a level of intensity beyond our limits. We need calm, though the goals might come quickly. If we can score, let’s get four. Ideally I wouldn’t set targets, but if we score a quick goal, it’s possible. We have to be prepared to score four and if they score two against us, we have to score five. It all depends on how the game develops."
The assignment is the same for each home team: score two goals. That would keep Valencia in the tie and send Juve on to a final on their home ground.