Why Inter Milan can't afford to drop the ball in tonight's Europa League final
Inter Milan coach Antonio Conte [Lars Baron/Pool via REUTERS]

What is the point of the Europa League? Sevilla and Inter Milan have very different answers to that question.

If Inter wins today’s final (which will be live on StarTimes World Football Channel, from 10pm) in Germany, it would be a milestone in its bid to dethrone Juventus in Italy and re-establish itself as a Champions League heavyweight. But Sevilla has a special affection for a competition it’s won five times, more than anyone else.

“It’s a competition that we care about a lot, that we love more than anyone else,” Sevilla sporting director Ramón “Monchi” Rodríguez told The Associated Press.

“And the players can feel that. It’s the competition that has helped us grow, that has helped us become a more significant club, that has helped us become more well known. It’s the competition that has boosted the club the most.”

Sevilla is the ideal club for a vision of the Europa League as a competition offering meaningful European games for clubs that don’t have the financial clout to fight for national titles or the Champions League. It won three in a row from 2014 to 2016.

“If you ask me, I’d still prefer to play the Champions League, because that’s the most important club competition in the world, the one with more prestige,” Monchi said. “But obviously the Europa League has meant a lot to us. We don’t see it as something less important.”

Sevilla’s ambitions have been limited by the overwhelming strength of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. Excluding the Europa League, Sevilla hasn’t won a trophy since the 2010 Copa del Rey and it hasn’t finished in the top two in La Liga since 1957.

Before its run to the final, Sevilla gave its players six days’ rest after the league season ended on July 19. That looks to have paid off.

The team played with more intensity than its opponents in the second halves against Roma in the last 16, Wolverhampton in the quarterfinals and in the 2-1 comeback win over Manchester United in the semifinals. The Italian and English leagues both finished later than La Liga.

“At first we thought it would be a disadvantage to be 15-20 days without competing,” Monchi said.

“We couldn’t play any friendlies. And other teams were still playing and didn’t have to disconnect. But I don’t think it’s clear whether it has helped or not. It’s not something we know for sure.”

Inter had no such break after its last Serie A game on August 1 but powered past supposedly fresher opponents like Getafe and Bayer Leverkusen at the Europa League tournament.

Alexis Sanchez is an injury doubt for the final after the Chilean forward was an unused substitute for the semifinal win over Shakhtar Donetsk because of a hamstring strain.

Inter played four finals in eight years in the 1990s in what was then called the UEFA Cup. They won three of those, most recently in 1998, with Brazil legend Ronaldo scoring in a 3-0 final win over Lazio.

Why Inter Milan can't afford to drop the ball in tonight's Europa League final
Sevilla’s Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui. [AFP]

Inter’s push to the final has been spearheaded by the “LuLa” partnership of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, who scored twice each in Inter’s 5-0 hammering of Shakhtar Donetsk in the semifinals, taking Inter to a club-record 111 goals for the season.

Finishing one point behind champion Juventus in Serie A underlined the ambition in Antonio Conte’s team to rejoin Europe’s elite group of clubs and the focus will firmly be on the Champions League next season, not the Europa League.

Winning today would continue a decade-long push to recover lost ground.

Since Jose Mourinho’s Inter team beat Bayern Munich to win the Champions League in 2010, Inter has endured difficult seasons, missing out on European qualification entirely in three of those years.

The combination of funding from Chinese owner the Suning Group, goals from “LuLa” and Conte’s coaching has turned that around this season.

The defeat of Shakhtar made Inter the first Italian club to reach the final since Parma won in 1999.

Ever since Porto beat Braga in an all-Portuguese final in 2011, every Europa League winner has come from either La Liga or the English Premier League.

There is usually a Champions League group-stage place on offer for the Europa League winner, but both Sevilla and Inter have already qualified via their leagues, so the place has been allocated to French team Rennes instead.

Meanwhile, few players mean as much to a club as Jesús Navas does to Sevilla.

The links are so strong that the 34-year-old Navas already has a stadium named after him at the club’s training center in Seville.

“Navas is part of Sevilla’s history,” sporting director Ramón “Monchi” Rodríguez said ahead of the Europa League final between Sevilla and Inter Milan in Germany.

Navas is set to make his 528th appearance with Sevilla in today’s match, and he could become the player with most titles in the history of the Spanish club.

Sevilla will be trying to win a record sixth Europa League title, and it would be the third for Navas in Europe’s second-tier club competition — his first as a captain. It would be his seventh overall title with the club, moving him past a series of former teammates.

No one has played more matches or reached more finals with the 130-year-old club, which he joined as a teenager and is in his second stint after spending four seasons with Manchester City in the Premier League.

Navas is also the player with the most assists for Sevilla, with his 102nd on Sunday helping striker Luuk de Jong score the winning goal late in the semifinal match against Manchester United. Navas also had a crucial assist that led the team to its first European final in 2006.

“He is an example for everyone,” Monchi said. “We all have a special affection for him at the club. He is a magnificent professional and a magnificent person.”

The club decided to honor Navas for his history at the club by naming its main training stadium after him in 2018. President José Castro said at the time that it was an easy choice considering Navas’ numbers and the values he represented.

“It’s beautiful to have a stadium named after me, but it also means a lot of responsibility,” the shy and soft-spoken Navas told the AP in a recent interview. “As a player who has come through the club’s youth squads like me, I am responsible for passing on our values to the younger players, responsible for showing the importance of being humble and to always work hard, which is the most important thing.”

Navas started all of Sevilla’s Europa League games in Germany, where it eliminated Roma in the round of 16 and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarterfinals before getting past Manchester United.

Navas’ first Europa League titles came in 2006 and 2007. He also helped the club win the Copa del Rey in 2007 and 2010, as well as the 2006 UEFA Super Cup and the 2007 Spanish Super Cup.

Navas, who can play both as a midfielder or a defender on the flanks, also made his mark with Spain’s national team. He helped “La Roja” win the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship.

It was Navas who started the run that led to Andrés Iniesta’s World Cup-winning goal, and it was his late goal in a group match against Croatia that helped Spain reach the quarterfinals at Euro 2012.

No Sevilla player has more international appearances with Spain than Navas.

Navas made his debut with Sevilla’s first team in 2003, and stayed with the club for a decade before signing with Man City, which he helped win the Premier League in his first season. Navas returned to Sevilla in 2017, with a contract until the end of next season.

Whether it will be his last contract with the club will depend solely on Navas.

“Jesús,” Monchi said, “will stay with Sevilla for as long as he wants to stay with Sevilla.”

 

 

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