Beauty and the Beast

Looks like a decent reward – but it’s not the only one.

It starts in three days. Before the Grand Final in Berlin we’re all waiting for, the appetizer shall be served on Wednesday. National Stadium in Warsaw will host the battle for Europa League trophy – and for a €5 million money prize. After 339 days, 482 games between first qualification round and the semifinals – it will all come down to this last evening in Poland. And, it turns out, it’s going to be a clash of Beauty from Sevilla with the defensive Beast from Dnipropetrovsk.

Those who didn’t follow this gigantic competition all the way through it might be under the impression that it’s not going to be the final we’ve all deserved. There will be no explosive Kevin De Bruyne challenging yet another most-assists record; there will be no Mohamed Salah proving yet again to be one of the best Fiorentina transfers since Gabriel Batistuta. There will be no such first-class goalscorers as Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Icardi or Romelu Lukaku. The bracket system is merciless: it takes one horrible game for an immensly strong side to become it’s victim – as Wolfsburg, Everton or Besiktas found out. Thus, seeing Sevilla and Dnipro in the final seems disappointing at first glance.

Another issue is the supposed disparity in two teams’ drive to win this all. After all, Los Rojiblancos are the current holders of 15-kilogram trophy and they’ll be keen to preserve it on Wednesday. Not only that: they’ve just finished 5th in a tough La Liga competition and only Paco Alcacer’s late winner in Almeria versus Valencia game separated them from challenging the Champions League next season. This means that Sevilla’s only shot to qualify for UCL is the most recent UEFA regulation, which allows the winners of Europa League to play amongst Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and Chelsea in 2015-16 campaign. Much more money than the aforementioned €5 million are at stake – and money equals motivation.

Other than ambition, there’s always the difference in strength. Apart from Dnipro’s leading star, winger Yevhen Konoplyanka, all their first-choice players have the market value inferior to their Spanish counterparts. Prior to this season, the Ukrainian contenders have spent just €2.25 million to strengthen their team – exactly half of the figure Sevilla splashed on their defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak alone. Even without the likes of Alberto Moreno and Ivan Rakitić, Unai Emery’s lads were able to score 112 goals in 2014-15 season, earning the average of 1.86 goal per game. Compared to that, Dnipro with their 73 goals and the average of 1.48 do look like a team that is about to get creamed.

 

Who are those Dnipropetrovsk lads anyway? Konoplyanka, their homegrown ace, has been a transfer target of some of the strongest clubs in Europe for several years in a row. However, he leads the group of fairly anonymous players. Goalkeeper Denys Boyko, who’s been a hero of the semifinals against Napoli, joined the team after leaving Dynamo Kyiv on a free transfer. Master of clearances, Douglas used to be just one of many Brazilian centre-backs in Vasco, where he only made 31 appearances in three years. Left-back Leo Matos helped Brazilian U-17 team to win the World Cup – but that was twelve years ago, and he never came close to such great career as some of the players he’s beaten (Fàbregas, Biglia, Guarín) enjoyed. Experienced Ruslan Rotan has made 78 appearances for Ukrainian National Team; his partner in the middle of the pitch, Jaba Kankava is best known for saving Oleg Gusev’s life after the latter received an accidental kick to his head and was choking with his tongue. For all of them, a win would be obviously a pinnacle of their careers.

Those who’ve seen their second leg victory against Napoli must’ve been feasting on caffeine because the game itself was sleep-inducing. Going into the match with an away goal advantage, Dnipro practised bus-parking very effectively, although not without the bumps on the way. If only Higuaín scored an easy chance just 8 minutes into that game, Ukraine most likely would not enjoy their second European cup final in this country’s short history. Partenopei went on to accumulate 63% of ball possession, executed 10 corners and took 19 shots – all in vain. Most notably, 8 of those 19 shots were blocked, already proving the teams’ biggest strength that could as well be critical against Sevilla. An eventual 1-0 win was Dnipro’s 8th clean sheet in 16 Europa League matches – and with just 11 goals conceded, they have to be considered a tough nut to crack.

 

Alas, there’s another storm waiting for them – possibly more dangerous one than Napoli, Brugge or any other previous rival managed to brew. While the Ukrainians were holding on to dear life, Sevilla completely dominated Fiorentina in one of the most one-sided semifinal clashes UEL has ever seen. From Benoît Trémoulinas’ relentless forward runs to Aleix Vidal’s exquisite finishing – all pieces of Emery’s puzzle fell right into place. The Italians, who enjoyed 13-game-unbeaten streak at one point of 2014-15 season, had no answer to the vigorous frontal attack from the Andalusian side. The partnership of Krychowiak and Mbia swept nearly all balls in front of Viola’s box, while players like Vitolo, Banega and Bacca had more than enough pace to capitalize on that. 5-0 on aggregate doesn’t do justice here: Rojiblancos have crushed their rivals much more than that.

They do, however, have several things working against them. First of all: the exhaustion factor. On Wednesday, the Spanish side will play their 61st game of the season, whereas Dnipro shall enter the pitch for the 50th time. One could argue that SFC have greater depth than their nearest rivals, but eleven games more on the legs makes much more of an impact than most of people would expect. Other than that, there’s the venue and the fans. 668 miles between Dnepropetrovsk and Warsaw don’t seem that big of a deal compared to 1657-mile trip from Sevilla to the Polish capital. This means that Dnipro fans will probably outnumber Sevilla fans – and that’s why Krychowiak, who’ll be returning home for this fixture, has already addressed Polish neutrals to cheer for Rojiblancos once they get to play. Finally, the Donbas-based team has the superiority in several Europa League stats – including shots per game (12.3 to SFC’s 11.1), shots conceded per game (11.7 to SFC’s 15.2) and tackles per game (20.3 to SFC’s 18.3).

 

Of course there’s also a reason why bookmakers are fancying Sevilla’s chances anyway. The team from Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán appeared in three Europa League finals in last 10 years – and won every single one of them. Coming to the fourth one, they are already on a 9-game unbeaten streak in UEL and share the highest goal tally of the competition with Napoli (26, compared to Dnipro’s fifteen). Carlos Bacca, their Colombian #9 has already scored 26 goals this season – eight more than Nikola Kalinić, who’s unlikely to be Myron Markevych’s first-choice player anyway. Additionally, if the game drags to the penalty shootout – which is quite possible, considering Dnipro’s resiliency – Unai Emery’s team has some relatively fresh experience on how to win it. Last but not least, there’s Trémoulinas. The left-back, who’s been fantastic this season, already played and managed to beat the team he’ll be up against on Wednesday – and it was when he used to wear Dynamo Kiev’s shirt. With all these assets, the pressure is on Spaniards to deliver the victory.

The final result is very likely to reflect the level of Grzegorz Krychowiak’s performance. This defensive midfielder, who usually visits National Stadium in Warsaw as a member of Polish team, is currently having the season of his life. Known as third-best tackler in La Liga with 81 successful challenges under his belt, he’s already been tipped to join Arsenal – so much, that he even jokingly announced his non-existent ‘transfer’ as an April Fools’ prank. According to media sources in England, if Arsène Wenger really decides to pursue him, he’ll have to spend at least £23.5 million from his summer war chest. And what is the Pole’s value for Sevilla? It’s been proven best on May 4th, when Rojiblancos faced Real Madrid. Thirty minutes into the game, Krychowiak received a blow to his nose and had to leave the pitch for 7 minutes with 0-0 still on the scoreboard. By the time doctors managed to stop the bleeding and put him back into the fray, Sevilla were already 0-2 down – and they never managed to recover, losing 2-3 in the end.

 

Krychowiak returns to Poland. If he prevails, Sevilla will prevail too.

This time, defeat is not an option. After losing battle for 4th place in La Liga by just 1 point and getting eliminated from Copa del Rey’s quarterfinal by Espanyol, Sevilla really do need this trophy to cheer them up after an otherwise disappointing season. The determination to win is huge: they want it so much that right after the semifinals, their chairman Pepe Castro announced that every socio willing to travel to Warsaw for the final will receive no less than €180 worth of discounts for the club, to fund the plane and match tickets. Since SFC reportedly sold all of 7600 tickets UEFA gave them, it’s easy to calculate that the club will spend around €1.3 million on this operation alone…

In the interviews, Unai Emery keeps mentioning big words like ‘dream’ and ‘writing history’ – on the pitch, he already gave much needed rest for Bacca, Vidal and Daniel Carriço, who all missed out the game against Almeria a week ago. And as they’re all arriving to Poland, rumours keep surfacing about their future ventures. On Wednesday, we should be watching Sevilla carefully, as it might be the last game of this team as we knew it in 2014-15 season. Not only Krychowiak being chased down by bigger and richer sides; apparently, Barcelona have listed Vidal among three or four possible right-back replacements to Dani Alves and Louis van Gaal wouldn’t mind spending £18 million for Bacca’s signature. Emery himself is even more popular name on the current transfer carousel: he’s been already linked with A.C. Milan, Real Madrid and West Ham United, to name a few.

 

And what if Dnipro takes it against all odds? It will be the second European trophy for the team from independent Ukraine after Shakhtar’s 2009 swoop of UEFA Cup against Werder Bremen. It will also be one more boost to an incredible Konoplyanka’s saga. The winger, who’s leaving his club on a free transfer has already stated his business: either he goes to one of the top Premier League clubs, or he wants at least £100.000 in wages! Tottenham and Stoke have already backed off from this deal, but Liverpool still seem to be into it: especially after the player himself apologized that he didn’t join The Reds last summer. But regardless of this greedy lad’s future – it’s Douglas who should top the list of potential signing from Dnipro. 97% pass accuracy. Plus 165 defensive actions in this Europa League (more than any other player). If anyone in the Ukrainian side deserves this cup – it’s him.

27.05.2015, National Stadium, Warsaw – Europa League Final
FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk – Sevilla FC

Probable Lineups
Dnipro (1-4-2-3-1): Boyko; Fedetskiy, Douglas, Cheberyachko, Léo Matos; Kankava, Fedorchuk; Luchkevich, Rotan, Konoplyanka; Seleznyov.
Sevilla (1-4-2-3-1): Rico; Coke, Pareja, Carriço, Trémoulinas; Krychowiak, Mbia; Vidal, Iborra, Vitolo; Bacca.

Prediction
Sevilla 1-0 Dnipro.

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