MADRID — Two years on from the embarrassment of being sacked as coach of his country on the eve of a World Cup, Julen Lopetegui has rebuilt his reputation to take Sevilla back to a sixth Europa League final in 14 years.
The Spaniards’ success in Europe’s second-tier competition is no longer a surprise despite the continued churn of players and coaches without the wealth of the continent’s superclubs.
However, a return to the Europa League final for the first time since 2016 on top of a first top-four finish in La Liga for three seasons, is sweet vindication for Lopetegui after a nightmare few months in 2018 threatened to derail his coaching career.
Hopes were high that the former Real Madrid and Barcelona goalkeeper could produce one last hurrah from Spain’s golden generation that had won three major tournaments from 2008 to 2012 ahead of the World Cup in Russia.
Spain were unbeaten in Lopetegui’s 20 games in charge of the national team, including impressive wins over Argentina, Italy, Belgium and eventual world champions France.
But he paid a heavy price for his own misjudgement and the politics of Spanish football as he accepted the role as Zinedine Zidane’s successor at Real Madrid days before the tournament got underway.
Furious Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales fired him two days before Spain’s opening match against Portugal in a move that did neither side much good.
Lopetegui returned home a haunted figure as he was presented at the Santiago Bernabeu just a day later and Spain limped out on penalties to Russia in the last 16 after winning just one match in four.
The decision to take the Madrid job was even more misguided as Lopetegui lasted just 14 games and was sacked again by late October.
Sevilla offered a shot at redemption, but also came with a risk. Monchi’s return as sporting director kicked off a huge turnover of the playing staff as 17 new players arrived and 28 departed over the course of the season.
Among those to leave were top scorers Wissam Ben Yedder and Pablo Sarabia and replacing them has proved problematic with Lucas Ocampos and Munir El Haddadi the only players to reach double figures for goals this season.
But Lopetegui has constructed a hard team to beat as is evidenced by a club record run of 20 games without defeat either side of a three-month shutdown due to coronavirus.
Only Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid had a better defensive record in La Liga this season and Bruno Fernandes’s penalty in the semi-final is the only goal Sevilla they have conceded in three knockout games since arriving in Germany against Roma, Wolves and Manchester United.
“There are always doubts until you really know the coach,” Monchi told Marca.
“Julen has pleasantly surprised me. Everyone told me that he was very professional and he’s won me over. When I see someone like him I fall in love, so I’m very happy to work with him.”
The team-spirit Lopetegui has fostered was clearly on show during the semi-final as Sevilla rode their luck, but showed no little heart to beat United 2-1 with a fraction of the budget of the English giants.
Despite the empty stands in Cologne, Sevilla were roared on by an enthusiastic crowd of substitutes, team directors and staff compared to the largely silent and bemused United contingent.
“We know we have created our own strong and loud support,” said Lopetegui of the encouragement from the sidelines.
“It was been a difficult but also a beautiful year,” he added on a first season in Seville that is now into its 13th month.
“The team has had the possibility to grow, overcoming obstacles, because of their hard work, solidarity and team spirit.”
Sevilla will need to be the better unit again in Friday’s final against another European giant with better individuals in Inter Milan.
But after five wins in five previous finals, Sevilla can never be underestimated in the Europa League. — AFP
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