Semi-final relief from off-field problems
1 May ~ Tonight's Europa League semi-final second leg at Mestalla brings together two Spanish teams looking for a return to European success to cover over what have been horrid recent seasons. Both Valencia in 2004 and Sevilla (twice, against Middlesbrough in 2006 and a year later against another Spanish team, Espanyol) won the competition when it was still called the UEFA Cup, and each club had squads filled with top Spanish and international players who could compete with the best around both at home and abroad. That seems quite a while ago now.
Valencia's failed bet on the local property market means they now have two stadiums (one they cannot afford to complete, another they cannot sell) and internationals David Silva, Juan Mata, David Villa and Jordi Alba have all been sold just to tread water in recent years. The club still owe €300 million (£247m) and are likely to be sold this summer.
Sevilla have also battled off-field issues over recent seasons, with long-serving president José Maria Del Nido finally beginning a seven-year jail term imposed for stealing public funds last January. Del Nido's stewardship also brought debts of over €100m – meaning the sale of Spain internationals Jesús Navas and Álvaro Negredo to Manchester City last summer.
A recent pick-up in form under coach Unai Emery (who used to manage Valencia) brought Sevilla close to a top four spot and a return to the Champions League next year. However last Sunday's 3-1 defeat at Athletic Bilbao has killed those hopes, and means this season's Europa League is their only chance of glory – especially with a 2-0 advantage from last week's first leg at the Estadio Sánchez Pizjuán. "We are close to something extraordinary," said Emery yesterday. "I have faith in our ability. Before the first leg our chances were 50-50. Now the odds are stacked more in our favour but we cannot get carried away yet."
Valencia's Juan Antonio Pizzi is the side's fifth coach in less than two years, and has yet to be able to instil consistency in a squad better known for off-pitch exploits than on-pitch success and stuck down in La Liga's mid-table. Pizzi admitted yesterday his side were up against it, but recalled his players had pulled off an even more unlikely comeback when overturning a 3-0 first-leg deficit in the quarter-final return game at home to Basel. "We should keep patient, dictate matters and play with more intensity than last week," he said. "If we can do that we will win the tie, the score is smaller than it was against Basel. We have to use the energy our fans give us, but still keep cool heads."
Considering all the off-pitch issues it is pretty impressive that both sides have got this far in the competition, and Juventus still look likely to win the final in their own stadium in Turin on May 14. But even getting this far is at least a glimmer of light in what are pretty grim times at both Valencia and Sevilla. Dermot Corrigan