Benfica seem cursed again in Europa League final loss to Sevilla
"I am not superstitious," Jorge Jesus, the Benfica coach had said before the final. Maybe he should have been. 52 years and eight finals after Benfica Bela Guttmann cursed the club after his firing, it has still not won another European title. However much Jesus may try to tell it there is no rational reason for the string of defeats, it's hard not to believe that Benfica's players feel Guttmann's ghost on their shoulders. For the second season in a row, it dominated the Europa League final, missed its chances, and was undone by an opponent that had, for the most part, barely clung on.
Chelsea was never under such intense pressure last season as Sevilla was this time, but it still produced a win thanks to a last-minute header from Branislav Ivanovic. This time Sevilla absorbed an absurd amount of punishment before finally winning its third Europa League in eight seasons on penalties. This was the closest Benfica had come to breaking the curse, along with 1988, when it lost on penalties to Guus Hiddink's PSV Eindhoven in the European Cup final.
By the time it got to spot kicks, there was a sense of inevitability about Benfica's defeat. Sevilla goalkeeper Beto made a close-range save from a Maxi Pereira header and Nicolas Gaitain stabbed wide after a rare defensive lapse. Twice in the space of a few seconds Sevilla defender Nicolas Pareja made key blocks, denying Lima then Rodrigo. Benfica generated 21 attempts on goal to Sevilla's 11 and yet as Ezequiel Garay put two chances over it seemed as though it would never score. Every missed chance only increased the anxiety.
"Sevilla started off better than Benfica," Jesus acknowledged. "But as the match progressed, Benfica improved, showed it was the better team, more of a team and, in the second half showed its power, had a number of opportunities to score, wasn't able to and then in extra time was the team that played more. But the team that believed in the penalties was Sevilla and Sevilla ended up winning. Today in the game the best team did not win. The Benfica players should be congratulated. There's nothing I can criticize."
Sevilla coach Unai Emery unsurprisingly disagreed. "I think that the best team did win," he said. "I think the result was fair and we deserved to win this. We fought until the end. It's a very special evening for all our fans. This competition is a competition that our fans really like because we've won it before. We've worked really hard because we thought we had the responsibility to win, but of course to win sometimes you have to suffer, but we've have learnt to suffer and that's why we reached the final today. We suffered against Betis, against Porto and against Valencia. We know how to suffer and that's why we won."
Oscar Cardozo, who missed a penalty for Paraguay against Spain in the 2010 World Cup, was the first to succumb, stuttering in his run up only to find that, far from being unsettled, Beto had used the time to advance three or four yards from his goal and narrow the angle significantly. Technically the referee Felix Brych should have ordered a retake but given the nature of the run-up perhaps it's understandable that he was unsympathetic. Cardozo's kick was uncertain and was pushed away by the right hand of the keeper. Then Rodrigo saw his tame kick saved on the keeper's left. Sevilla, by contrast, seemed to realize that the momentum was with it. Kevin Ganeiro's confident strike that won the shoot-out was their fourth superb penalty in a row.
By the end, Sevilla's players were exhausted. They went down with cramps, but kept pushing themselves. At one point Stephane Mbia hobbled into position to block a shot with an unraveling bandage around his thigh trailing behind him. Save for a two-minute spell just before halftime when they let Rodrigo and then Gaitan through, central defenders Federico Fazio and Pareja were magnificent, always flinging themselves in the way of shots, always hurtling back to make challenges. It may not necessarily have been classical or calm defending, but it was effective enough.
In front of them, Ivan Rakitic, upright and blond, an elegant deep-lying playmaker, was excellent. His use of the ball was intelligent, both in keeping the ball away from Benfica and in creating what chances Sevilla created. Had Jose Antonio Reyes been a little more incisive when running on to one chance early in the second half, it might never have gone to extra-time, never mind penalties.
It's 32 years since Guttmann died in Vienna, aged 82. In 1990, the great Benfica forward Eusebio prayed at his tomb for forgiveness. Eusebio died in January and, a month later, so too did Mario Coluna, the other legend of that Benfica side of 1962. Yet still the curse goes on. Still Benfica suffer.