The 2019-20 European soccer season unofficially began 422 days ago, when Feronikeli and FC Santa Coloma earned 1-0 victories over the Lincoln Red Imps and Tre Penne, respectively, in the preliminary round of Champions League qualifying. In this, the strangest sports year in most of our lifetimes, the season finally ends this weekend.
Before we can get to the main event, though -- Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain battling in Lisbon for the Champions League crown -- we get a hell of an undercard. The Europa League final pits the hottest team in Europe that isn't in the UCL finals (Inter Milan) against a team that treats the Europa League title game like its own personal birthright (Sevilla).
It goes without saying that you'll probably be watching PSG vs. Bayern on Sunday. But you should carve out time for Europa on Friday, too. You should always carve out time for Europa, actually. Let's talk about why, FAQ-style.
Do you like chaos?
The Europa League might be the most comprehensive consolation prize in sports. You did really well in league play, but couldn't quite overcome your league's financial heavyweights? (In other words, you're a Wolves or Leicester.) Welcome to the Europa League. You won your small league but couldn't quite qualify for the Champions League? Hello. You made the Champions League, but finished third in your group? Join us midway through! The water's fine!
In a sport increasingly dominated by cash and a sturdy layer of elite teams, the Europa League is the people's tournament. Sure, sometimes a rebuilding giant can still spoil the party -- Chelsea won it in 2019, of course, Manchester United won it in 2017 and Inter Milan itself has plenty of financial heft. But in the past 15 years, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Middlesbrough, Fulham, Braga, Werder Bremen, Espanyol, CSKA Moscow, Rangers, Athletic Bilbao, Olympique Marseille, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit Saint Petersburg have all at least made the finals. And while things have shaded a bit more toward the heavyweights in recent years, Sevilla, a club from Andalusia with few built-in advantages, is still the metaphorical face of the tournament.
In recent weeks, we might have figured out a way to make Europa even more of a glorious mess. Both the Champions League and Europa League went to a single-elimination format to finish things up after the coronavirus stoppage -- both have single-elimination, neutral-field finals, but play home-and-homes for each other elimination round. While it might be difficult to make the case for the Champions League to retain this format upon the world's return to relative normalcy -- having attended a UCL semi-final in a big club's home stadium, I can say that the environment for the event is impossibly intense -- the format adds one extra sheen of potential chaos to the Europa League proceedings, and I cannot approve more.
I say UEFA should make the elimination rounds single-elimination from this point forward. Hell, get weirder: add an extra round, too. Make the group stage more expansive, then set up a six-round, 64-team, single-elimination tournament. Invite everyone to the party. Go big.
Sevilla, of course, would probably make the finals of that, too.
Seriously... how do Sevilla always end up here?
No team is more honest with itself than Sevilla FC. Depending on the year, Sevilla is likely to be the fourth- to eighth-largest La Liga team in terms of revenue. That's solid living, to be sure. But when you're in a league with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid -- winners of the last 16 league titles and seven of the last 12 Champions Leagues, with 11 other semifinal appearances in that span -- you probably can't count on contending often. Los Nervionenses haven't won La Liga since 1946 and have finished in the top three only once in 50 seasons.
Understanding that they probably can't compete at that level, Sevilla instead save some haymakers for tournament play. They won the Copa del Rey in 2007 and 2010, and reached at least the semifinals in 2004, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2018. And while they've competed admirably in the Champions League through the years -- they beat Manchester United to reach the quarterfinals in 2018 and made it to the knockout rounds in 2008, 2010 and 2017 -- the Europa League is their home. They won it in 2006 and 2007 (when it was still called the UEFA Cup), then pulled a remarkable three-peat from 2014 to '16. They even beat Barcelona, 3-0, in the UEFA Super Cup, a match between the winners of the two tournaments, in 2006.
The 2014 run was their masterclass. Having finished ninth in the league the year before, they reached the Europa qualifying rounds only because sixth-place Malaga failed Financial Fair Play regulations and eighth-place Rayo Vallecano couldn't obtain a UEFA license. They had to beat Mladost Podgorica and Slask Wroclaw to even make the group stage, where they went unbeaten, and they took down Maribor, Real Betis, Porto and Valencia in the knockout rounds before beating Benfica in penalties in the finals.
Sevilla played 19 Europa matches in all; three went to extra time and two went to penalties. But they went through it all to raise a European trophy. And then they lifted it the next two years, too. They care about this tournament like everyone should.
After falling to Slavia Prague in the Europa round of 16 last year, then taking an upset against Mirandes in the Copa del Rey round of 16 this year, it appears they've stocked back up on tournament mojo. They're one win from a sixth Europa title, but this will likely be their toughest final yet.
Exactly how good are Inter right now?
Really, really good. Like, "almost Bayern" good. They lost only four matches all year in Serie A -- two of those were defeats to Juventus that made the difference in the title race, unfortunately -- and their only loss since play resumed in June was a fluky 2-1 defeat against Bologna that included a missed penalty, two red cards and an Expected Goals (XG) advantage of 2.9 to 1.1 for Inter. (We call that the Manchester City Special.)
Antonio Conte's side secured second place in the league by beating Napoli and Atalanta, 2-0 each, in the last two matches of the Italian season. And in the Europa knockouts in Germany, they beat Getafe with ease, raced to a 2-0 lead against Bayer Leverkusen and held on, and then absolutely throttled Shakhtar Donetsk, 5-0. They are a wrecking ball at the moment.
Yeah, but we've seen good runs from Inter before, right? False hope, perhaps?
We have, but it's been a while since they produced anything like this.
EloFootball.com has been running European club rankings since 1956 and currently ranks Inter seventh; this year will end with their highest ranking since their 2010 Champions League run, but it goes beyond even that: they hadn't finished higher than 19th since 2011 and spent most of 2013-17 stuck in the 30s or worse. Their "big club" status seemed to have expired.
The combination of first-year coach Conte, first-year signee Romelu Lukaku (33 goals in all competitions) and a core of contributors approaching their respective primes -- defenders Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar, midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and Nicolo Barella, breakout forward Lautaro Martinez -- have brought life to a club that has longed for it for a while. If this core remains intact, we could be witnessing the beginning of a multiyear run.
The Nerazzurri had maybe the most methodical buildup play in Serie A -- they averaged just 83.3 possessions per match (fewest in the league) and 6.0 passes per possession (fourth-most), and they had among the lowest averages for long-ball attempts, percentage of forward passes and direct speed (average verticality of a given sequence of actions). In other words, they took their time and didn't give you the ball in vulnerable areas of the field.
Inter also avoided allowing too many counterattacks when they lost the ball and boasted among the most effective presses in the league: they were fourth in passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). They don't pressure you non-stop, but they pick their spots awfully well and they give you nothing easy, as evidenced by the fact that they allowed the fewest goals and second-lowest XG-per-shot average in Serie A. They've also allowed just one goal in their last seven overall matches. They always have defenders behind the ball, but the combo of Lukaku and Martinez, along with the brilliant and steady passing of Brozovic, Skriniar and de Vrij (all of whom attempted at least 1,600 passes and completed at least 90% of them in league play), make them dangerous in attack all the same.
This all came together with a perfect showing against Shakhtar; Inter sprung surprise pressure to set up multiple goals and when Shakhtar, a very fun passing and attacking team, actually enjoyed longer spans of possession, they couldn't find a single crack to exploit.
So... can Sevilla win?
It's a tall task for sure, but it's worth noting that Manchester United was ranked seventh in the Elo rankings until they played Sevilla and lost. Sevilla's form has improved a lot of late: after generating just five points in seven matches against Elo top-40 teams before the stoppage, they have managed 12 in six matches since, including a draw with Barcelona and the three knockout wins in this Europa League return. They haven't actually lost a match in any competition since Feb. 9, and they're up to 14th in Elo themselves, recently jumping ahead of both Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea. This will be their highest finish since ending up ninth in 2015.
Like Inter, Sevilla enjoy a steady buildup. They ranked third in La Liga in average passes per possession (5.5), third in possession rate and near the bottom in long balls, forward passes, etc. But while they were third in the league in PPDA, they were more vulnerable to pressure than Inter have been. League opponents began 0.7 more possessions per 90 in their attacking third than Sevilla did. Of course, that was only a domestic vulnerability -- they've started 9.6 possessions per 90 in the attacking third in Europa play (third among teams reaching the knockout rounds) and have allowed only 4.2 (second). They always save their best selves for Europa.
This match could simply come down to the number of crippling mistakes each team makes during buildup play. Both teams want to take their time, and both are smart about when they apply pressure. Inter's ceiling is almost certainly higher than Sevilla's, but if the team in blue and black makes three crippling errors to Sevilla's one or two, that could be that.
Who are your favorite players in this game?
My own personal favorites? Thanks for asking! Let's see...
Romelu Lukaku. From Lukaku to Angel di Maria to Memphis Depay, you could write a book about the players who looked great as youngsters, joined Manchester United for a year or two, left as disappointments and resumed greatness elsewhere. Lukaku averaged 0.52 goals per match in all competitions during four seasons at Everton, fell to 0.44 in two years at United (which isn't horrible), then surged to 0.66 in his first season at Inter. He has scored in 10 consecutive Europa League matches going back to his United days. And he is, by all accounts, a good dude and great teammate. He's immovable and easy to root for.
Jesus Navas. Sevilla's captain and right-back has led the team with 9.9 xA (expected assists) in all competitions this year and is second in actual assists, first in both chances created and big chances created, first in key passes, second in ball recoveries, third in intercepted passes, fourth in ball clearances, fifth in take-ons and and first, by far, in total minutes. He is a machine on both ends of the field. He's also 34 years old. He played in Spain's World Cup win 10 years ago. It's unfair to be that good at something for that long.
Marcelo Brozovic. In a piece about the 2019-20 European season last week, I noted that while clubs are getting smarter in the shots they take, Italian teams still have a place in their heart for grand gestures, i.e. long shots that have almost no chance of success. Inter's attack has been led by the ultra-efficient Lukaku and Martinez, but they still let Brozovic take a couple of long, hopeful, Damian Lillard-style bombs each match.
In Europe and Serie A play, he was third on the team in shot attempts, but those shots averaged only 0.07 XG each. (Anything below 0.10 is bad.) Only three resulted in goals, and one went in off of a deflection, but those other two were glorious swishes. Brozovic is, of course, a masterful and responsible high-volume passer, but he's still got a romantic side to him, too.
Lucas Ocampos. Those crippling mistakes I mentioned above? If Inter commits them, Ocampos will likely be the one both creating and taking advantage of them. The Sevilla right-winger has won more possessions in the attacking third than any of his teammates, and has nearly one-fifth of all of Sevilla's touches in the opponent's box. Predictably, he's a distant first in goals scored, but he's also third in assists. He creates chaos and capitalizes on it, one way or another.
So what's your prediction?
Picking against Sevilla in a tournament that might as well be named the Sevilla Cup feels wrong. It might be wrong. But Inter has just been too good of late. At the moment, I would pick them against anybody in Europe not named Bayern or PSG. We'll say Sevilla makes life complicated for a while, but Inter eventually takes the lead, then ices the match late. 3-1 Inter.