Seville’s qualification for the Europa League final has become almost routine over the past two decades, but this season’s run has been unanticipated for all. Except their players.
Two months ago, Sevilla sank to a two-goal loss at Getafe, plunging them deeper into the relegation sludge at the foot of La Liga. Days earlier they had sealed – a somewhat unconvincing and nervous – progress past Fenerbahce to the last eight of European competition.
The Andalusian club sacked Jorge Sampaoli – their third coach of the season, who had replaced Julen Lopetegui five months earlier – and moved to Jose Luis Mendilibar. A highly respected coach, but one who was seen as a quick fix to improve results and morale immediately, to stabilize the situation until the end of the campaign.
Mendilibar’s Sevilla, tasked with keeping the club in La Liga, have amassed more points (19) in eight league games in the same period than any other club in the league, including newly crowned champions Barcelona. They are in the top half and, somewhat remarkably, are watching European qualifying.
What they have done in Europe is even more extraordinary. After an hour out at Old Trafford and trailing by two goals, two lucky late own goals preceded a convincing victory over the Red Devils in Seville. They then, after extra time, rightfully defeated the Italian giant Juventus.
Defender Nemanja Gudelj, talking to Mirror football explained that there was no doubt in the club’s dressing room that the tournament – which Sevilla have won a record six times since 2006 – would be their inspiration for a stunning turnaround in fortunes.
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“It’s a great feeling,” explained Gudelj, after helping the team qualify for a seventh final. “Everyone knows the special relationship that Sevilla has with this competition and we in the dressing room live up to those opportunities.
“Before every game in the league we talk to encourage ourselves with the statistics we have and that no club wants this as badly as we do. That record gives us strength.”
Those stats are incredible. Sevilla have progressed in all 20 Europa League matches since the quarter finals they have played in. “We believe this helped us salvage our difficult season and now we have it in our hands to win silverware and also play in the Champions League.
“If you look at our results in the Europa League against PSV and Fenerbahçe, those games were when we were in very difficult moments domestically. But the competition motivated us to be even higher and to play even better.”
Despite still languishing as 10th in the standings, Sevilla are Spain’s team on form and currently the team to beat. “This has been a very difficult season, especially up to the middle of the season,” Gudelj admitted.
“We have improved in recent months and even if the performance was not at the level we had set ourselves, this had to improve. You can’t compare this team to the beginning of the season. Under Mendilibar we have won 80 percent of our matches. This is a different team.”
Speaking about how difficult the many changes at the managerial level have been, the Serb continued: “Having three different coaches with three different views on football makes it difficult. I only have the best players for every coach I’ve had here and this happens in football – we had to adapt.
“Mendilibar (compared to Lopetegui and Sampaoli) is much simpler. He sees the group, sees what qualities they have and tries to get the most out of that group with his view on football. We try not to complicate anything and play very high, aggressive football. This is how Seville traditionally plays football.”
Gudelj added: “It has been a very difficult season without stability, but we have always believed in each other.”
Sevilla now face fierce city rivals Real Betis, who are aiming for a top-five finish, at their Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan stadium on Sunday. The games never disappoint in action and drama, and Gudelj – who has played in key derbies in the Netherlands and Portugal – believes the match is incomparable.
“It’s so intense,” said the 31-year-old, who scored a stunning long-range strike to save a point for Sevilla in November’s clash. “I’ve played in many derbies throughout my career. But compared to the Seville derby, this one beats all the others. It’s a very special game. Everyone in the city is red or green. Everyone has to choose their color and choose their club.
“The whole city is involved, it’s not just football fans but everyone individually. It’s an identity that goes beyond sport, and that’s what makes these derbies so special.”
The Serb has been in Seville for four seasons and speaks Spanish with the city’s distinctive, fast accent. He fully embodies the values of the club and credits his father Nebojsa’s three years in Spanish football – playing at Logrones and Leganes – when he was a child, for adapting to the culture. His brother Dragisa plays in nearby Cordoba.
(Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
“The bond between the Sevilla players and the club is very important,” he explains. The moment I signed for the club, a few months later, I immediately felt at home. I adapted very quickly.
“It’s thanks to the club and the fans, to the people of the city, that my whole family is here too. It’s very important for a player if he wants to reach his maximum capacity.”
Sunday’s derby kicks off at 8pm UK time and Sevilla hope to carry the positive energy of Thursday’s momentous Europa League triumph into Spain’s most passionate, highly charged game.
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