The Europa League has often attracted criticism for being too lengthy a competition and a tournament for those teams considered lightweight for participating in the later stages of the Champions League. Try telling that to the supporters of Juventus, Benfica, Valencia and Sevilla after an evening of pure drama and passionate football at the second leg stages of the semi-finals.
Valencia needed to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg in Sevilla and after parity was restored within half an hour, the scene was set for a dramatic climax to the tie with Sevilla always appearing capable of claiming an all-important away goal.
Jeremy Mathieu’s close range effort after 70 minutes seemed to have sealed an unlikely victory for Valencia but Stephane Mbia headed a very late goal for Sevilla in added time to provoke contrasting scenes of both utter despair and sheer joy within the stadium. The match had been played at a frantic pace throughout proceedings and both Spanish teams contributed to a hugely entertaining spectacle.
Over in Turin, Juventus only needed to defeat Benfica by a 1-0 scoreline to progress to a final in their own stadium but the Portuguese team had no intention of surrendering their slender one goal advantage from the first leg. Benfica have already claimed the Portuguese Primeira Liga and are now looking to end the curse of former manager Bela Guttmann who declared that they would not win another European trophy in 100 years after success in the 1962 European Cup final.
In a match played in steady rain, Benfica held their nerve during a first half of incessant Juventus pressure during the defence could not be breached despite several close efforts. When Enzo Perez was dismissed for a second bookable offence midway during the second half, a real backs- to-the-wall effort was required for Benfica and the team responded accordingly.
Yet more drama followed when opposing players Mirko Vucininc and Lazar Markovic were ‘sent off’ for a touchline altercation and then Benfica were reduced to nine fit personnel when impressive centre-back Ezequiel Garay was stretchered from the field after incurring facial injuries following an accidental clash with Paul Pogba of Juventus.