Mendilibar’s simple football fetches Sevilla’s record seventh

Jose Mourinho hadn’t got this right: Jose Luis Mendilibar has less white hair. They are both sexagenarians but in European final nights, Mendilibar was a first-timer and Mourinho a veteran who had never finished second in five previous outings.

Sevilla coach Jose Mendilibar talks to players before extra time(REUTERS)

But this is the Europa League and this is Sevilla. They always find a way. This is a team that has lost only three of their last 40 knockout games in Europe’s second-tier competition and never a final though they have trailed in four of them. Paulo Dybala’s slick left-footer was cancelled with Gianluca Mancini’s own-goal – it was the third time Sevilla benefited from this in the competition after two against Manchester United– and Sevilla won from a tie-breaker penalty that had to be retaken to decide an attritional tie that began in May and ended in June.

In Gonzalo Montiel, Sevilla had their man alright. The Argentine now has two trophies won with his last kick, the other being the World Cup, so you couldn’t grudge him the after-final selfie with the 15kg trophy, Europe’s heaviest.

Montiel’s penalty fetched the Andulasian club an unprecedented seventh Europa League title, five of them in the last 10 years. Even in a La Liga season where they were only two points clear of the drop zone in March and 11th now – if they finish there, it will be their worst since promotion in 2000-01 – Sevilla managed to go all the way, the 5 (1)-1(1) result at Budapest’s Puskas Arena confirming another Champions League season.

Other teams would have focused on the league in such a situation but it couldn’t be that at Sevilla where Europa League trophies are displayed in the change rooms. So, after Manchester United, Sevilla beat Juventus to make the final, their first since 2019-20.

Crucial to the turnaround was Mendilibar. He was appointed on a three-month deal to stem a slide into the drop zone with Sevilla having lost to Osasuna, Atletico Madrid and Getafe. Yet, in the middle of all this and right after Atletico Madrid drubbed them 6-1, Sevilla beat Fenerbahce 2-0 in the Europa League.

Mendilibar took charge on All Fools Day, away to Cadiz and won 2-0. From then till the 1-2 loss to Real Madrid, Sevilla accumulated 21 points from six wins and three draws. Not even La Liga winners Barcelona got that many. It was some shift from the poor start under Julen Lopetegui and the confusion under Jorge Sampaoli, best exemplified by Marcos Acuna throwing away a piece of paper that had instructions from the manager. Too much of playing out from the back, Sevilla president Pepe Castro, part of all the triumphant European nights, had explained.

Mendilibar has said he does not make his players do “square roots, only addition and subtraction.” He has described himself as the “anti-modern manager” who is not a slave to the tablet or computer. His form of unsophisticated football is the opposite of Pep Guardiola but Mendilibar has shown simplicity is also a Spanish way that fetches trophies.

His teams press with intensity, Roma were allowed an average of 5.4 passes before Sevilla challenged them, fight for second balls and fling crosses into the box for Youssef En-Nesyri whose goal against Portugal in Doha had made history for Morocco and Africa.

Sevilla attempted 40 crosses in the final. Jesus Navas alone had seven. Skipper Navas, a product of Sevilla’s academy and the only player from when they first won in Europe in 2006, typified the team’s no-frills approach. At 37, he can’t play wide right anymore so Lucas Ocampos does that while he slots in at right-back. And he has done that so well that though Sevilla had Montiel, all managers this term preferred the 2010 World Cup winner after whom the club have named their training ground. It was from Navas’ wicked cross that Sevilla equalised.

From Ivan Rakitic to Ocampos, players have spoken of how Mendilibar has changed things infusing positive vibes, making them understand what to do and then getting them to do it.

For most of his managerial career, at Eibar, Real Valladolid, Osasuna, Levante and Alaves, Mendilibar has said he “fought for other type of prizes”. It was mostly about survival there though he did get Eibar to finish ninth in 2017-18 La Liga and won promotion with Valladolid in 2007.

“I’ve been in the Primera División for 20 years and it seems like nobody knew me and now, to be at Sevilla and doing what we’re doing? What I did at Eibar is as much as what I’m doing at Sevilla,” Mendilibar told the Spanish website Relevo. That was before his 965th game in charge and fifth in the Europa League. One which provided succour to Spain in a season where Real Madrid were picked apart by Manchester City in the Champions League and the country’s football tarred by repeated charges of racism.

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