BASEL, Switzerland – Sevilla’s extraordinary affinity for the Europa League continues.
A second-half comeback, featuring a goal from Kevin Gameiro and two from Coke, made it the first side in history to win the Europa League–in any of its forms–three times in a row. It was already the most successful team in the history of the tournament, but this made it five wins in 10 years.
Yet at halftime Liverpool led, thanks to a brilliant goal from Daniel Sturridge, and seemed in control. This was the fifth final in which Jurgen Klopp has been defeated in the last four years, but, more worrying for him was the way his side collapsed in the 25 minutes after halftime. In danger of being overwhelmed in the final minutes of the first half, seemingly unable to cope with Liverpool’s power and pace, Sevilla came out for the second far more prepared to take the game to Liverpool and far slicker as a result. For that, Unai Emery, who completed a personal hat trick of Europa Leagues, must take great credit.
Liverpool, ultimately, will perhaps draw encouragement from the signs of promise in a season in which it reached two finals without winning either, and the fact that around 30,000 of its fans are estimated to have made the trip to Switzerland suggests the level of belief Klopp has inspired. At least 20,000 of them appeared to have found a way into the ground, with many of the others watching a big screen in the main square.
St. Jakob-Park, in truth, is a slightly odd place. An apartment block lines one side of the ground while a wedge-shaped office block, all steel angels and green glass, rises behind one goal. The stand facing the apartment block has a third tier, but it feels like an afterthought. With a capacity of 38,500, the arena is bijou, the 112th-largest in Europe, and arguably too small for a final.
Basel itself felt the strain. A lack of accommodation forced many fans to stay in Mulhouse, Freiburg and other surrounding towns, while the tram to the stadium was canceled, forcing everybody to walk the half hour or so from the city center. More seriously, one stand was split 50-50 between Sevilla and Liverpool fans with nothing to separate the two groups but an aisle. About half an hour before kickoff, fighting broke out at the front of the stand between perhaps a dozen fans of each side. They were separated quickly enough by just three stewards before, belatedly, riot police moved in and took up positions in the stand.
There were also reports of frightening crushes outside the ground as Sevilla fans were herded to a narrow entrance. Serious questions must be asked about the organization. It was nothing like as bad as the 2007 Champions League final in Athens, but neither was it anywhere near acceptable.
On the field, Liverpool, as it had against Villarreal in the second leg of the semifinal, pressed ferociously, seemingly trying to intimidate Sevilla with its muscularity. After a phase when football seemed determined to stamp out physicality, there appears in over the past couple of years to have been a reversion to a more liberal interpretation and Liverpool seemed intent on using the leeway to the maximum.
Sevilla, though, didn’t crumble as Villarreal had, even if it looked uncomfortable as Liverpool tore into it, particularly down the right, as though the left back, Sergio Escudero, had been highlighted as a weak point. Adam Lallana, who has perhaps improved more than anybody under Klopp, was superb in combining with Nathaniel Clyne, but in general Liverpool simply looked quicker and stronger. Daniel Carrico had hacked off the line from Sturridge who also drew a fine save from David Soria even before his goal. No fewer than three Sevilla players got away with handling in the box with varying degrees of intent.
The ball was worked from right to left, from Roberto Firmino to Philippe Coutinho to Daniel Sturridge. The forward, 16 yards out, well to the left of goal, squared up right back Mariano Ferreira and then, with ruthless precision, shaped a shot with the outside of his left foot past the lunge of Adil Rami, round the dive of David Soriano and just inside the far post.
It was a stunning goal, the arc perfect, the power generated with a seemingly languid flick remarkable. It seemed then, with Klopp’s side rampant, that it had set Liverpool on the way to a fourth success in the competition. It hadn’t.
Just 17 seconds into the second half, Sevilla levelled. Alberto Moreno’s clearing header was weak and he was then nutmegged by Mariano, who crossed low for Gameiro to tap in. Sevilla came to dominate. It took a superb tackled from Toure to deny Gameiro in his shooting stride as he ran in behind the Liverpool defense, and Simon Mignolet then diverted an effort from the forward over the bar with his thigh after a Steven N’Zonzi flick had found him untended in the box.
After a first half in which Liverpool had been much the better side, the turnaround was startling, and it was competed after 64 minutes as a Vitolo run and one-two with Ever Banega created an opportunity for Coke, who swept in a low shot from the edge of the box. Six minutes later, Coke had his second, Clyne’s clearance hitting Coutinho and bouncing kindly for him to force the ball past Mignolet.
Liverpool, by then, was spent, defeated by the sort of comeback that it has made its specialty but which has also been characteristic of Sevilla during this unprecedented period of success.