It’s time for Sevilla to make the big leap

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Time and again, we can’t help but wonder what exactly makes football the beautiful game it is. What is it that unites people of different class, creed and gender under one roof? What is it that makes millions of people spend so much of their time observing, considering and discussing the game? Is it our undying passion for the game? Is it the joy of watching some of the best athletes in the world working as a team to achieve a common goal? Is it the lack of a pre-destined outcome unlike in a film or a play? Or is it the unpredictability of events such as Brazil’s historic World Cup triumph in 1958 or Greece’s famous EURO 2004 victory?

The football season that concluded recently was not short of surprises either. Be it Leicester City’s rise from a position of an underdog to the English Premier League champion, or PSV Eindhoven pipping Ajax to win the Eredivisie on the final day of the season. But where do we place Sevilla’s unprecedented third consecutive Europa League victory?

Unai Emery’s team has made winning Europe’s second-tier club competition a habit. Sevilla’s victory this season — its fifth in the last 10 years — makes it the first club to win three consecutive UEFA titles since Bayern Munich and Liverpool reigned supreme in the mid-1970s. However, with automatic qualification granted to the Europa League winner every year, what the statistics also reveal is how poor Sevilla’s performances have been against Europe’s best.

Sevilla’s La Liga campaign was far from what was worthy of a European champion — the club finished a disappointing seventh, failing to win away from home the entire season.

Emery’s men were found wanting in the Champions League too. Sevilla beat Juventus 1-0 on the last day of the Champions League group stage to dislodge Borussia Monchengladbach from the third spot and make it to the Europa League. The club, though, was eliminated from the Champions League.

For the Andalusian club to make the big step in Europe, it is important for Sevilla to change its mentality. It must no longer be a feeder club for Europe’s big guns; instead, it must fend off any approach for its stars. Every successful football team in history has had a core group of players around whom the team was built. Sevilla must now offer Emery the chance to do the same.

In the recent past, the club lost striker Carlos Bacca to AC Milan, midfielder Ivan Rakitic to Barcelona and left-back Alberto Moreno to Liverpool. This year again, there are rumours that Argentine Ever Banega is bound for Inter Milan, while a host of teams are reported to be circling around defender Adil Rami and forward Kevin Gameiro.

The Sevilla management can learn a lot about success from Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone. The Rojiblancos won the Europa League in 2011-12 and has not looked back since. It won the La Liga and played in the Champions League final in the 2013-14 season. This year too, the lesser-known side from Madrid has reached the Champions League final, after having chased the eventual La Liga winner, Barcelona, until the penultimate week of the season.

The success of Atletico lies in its ability to sustain the quality of its side. When Sergio Aguero left the club, it brought in an ideal replacement, Radamel Falcao. Following his departure, Diego Costa stepped up. Now, it is Antoine Griezmann and old boy Fernando Torres. Similarly, after Thibaut Courtois left the club, Jan Oblak stepped in to set a record for clean-sheets.

Sevilla has shown similar healing abilities in recent seasons. Bacca more than filled the hole left by Alvaro Negredo, while Gameiro has stepped up since Bacca’s departure to Milan.

One person instrumental in Sevilla’s success in the recent years has been its sporting director Monchi, who is regarded as one of the finest talent hunters in football today. When he arrived in 2000, the Andalusian club had just been relegated and was in huge debt. Monchi played the key role in big-money sales of Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Luis Fabiano, Federico Fazio and Seydou Keita after signing them for cheap, and thereby turning the fortunes of the club around. Sevilla, however, continues to be a selling club with double-digit ‘INs’ and ‘OUTs’ every season. There is no doubt that Monchi and his team will continue to unearth talent. It is now essential for Sevilla to retain a core set of players around whom Emery can build a title-challenging team.

Back in the Champions League next season via the Europa League victory, it must simply do better and go past the group stages. That means no retaining the Europa League for a fourth consecutive time, and therefore the extra need to find a top four place in La Liga to ensure Champions League qualification.

Sevilla is the first side to win the Europa League five times, which is a formidable achievement considering the club has done it in a span of 10 years. But the time has surely come for the club from the Southern Spanish town to make the leap into Europe’s best.

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