Sevilla 3 Dnipro 2
In the end, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s sense of their own destiny was not enough in Warsaw on Wednesday night. Sevilla, playing their familiar attractive high-octane football, defended their Europa League title and became the first side in history to win the tournament for the fourth time – astonishingly just nine years after they won it for the first time.
While José Antonio Reyes offered a reminder of his energy and inventiveness for an hour, this was really the victory of two men who confirmed their great promise. The coach Unai Emery successful defended the title the now 43-year-old won by beating Benfica in the final last year, but in a far more fluent aesthetically pleasing way, while the Colombian forward Carlos Bacca demonstrated his predatory instincts to pilfer two goals.
On a day that had showcased so much of what is wrong with the sport this was a game that offered a welcome reminder of football’s capacity to thrill and enthral, the only sadness being that the corollary to Sevilla’s deserved victory was defeat for a Dnipro side that had played with great courage and conviction to overcome numerous obstacles to reach this stage. For Dnipro’s fans, many of whom had tickets and transport paid for by players, this was not only a final – only the fifth the club has ever been involved in, and the first since they lost the 2004 Ukrainian Cup to Shakhtar Donetsk.
There were more than 60,000 at the Olimpyskyi in Kiev for the semi-final victory over Napoli and in the ecstatic pitch invasion that followed the final whistle there was a sense both of abandon and of patriotic fervour. In the streets of Warsaw during the afternoon and in the stadium, it was notable how many Dnipro fans had wrapped themselves in the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine: there was a real sense of this as a matter of national pride. Ruslan Rotan, Dnipro’s captain, while insisting on the importance of separating sport and politics, had spoken before the game of wanting to “give the people some joy”.
It took just seven minutes for some joy to be delivered – although it didn't last long. Sevilla had passed and probed and packed all the early menace, but it was Dnipro who took the lead. Artem Fedetskyi launched a long forward pass, Nikola Kalinic flicked it on for Matheus, who then crossed for the big Croat to head low past Sergio Rico.
Kalinic, who once underwhelmed for Blackburn Rovers, was only playing because of a muscular injury that confined Yevhen Seleznyov to the bench, but he offered a similarly muscular presence, holding the ball up, and offering an outlet when Dnipro found themselves under pressure.
They were, though, under an awful lot of pressure. Reyes, buzzing in his familiar arabesques on the right, had hit a low shot just wide and Grzegorz Krychowiak had a header superbly saved by Denys Boyko when, after 27 minutes, the Polish midfielder pulled Sevilla level, cracking in a low shot as a corner fell to him just inside the area.
Three minutes later, Sevilla took the lead their early play had deserved, a Reyes pass running kindly for Bacca, the former bus conductor from Baranquilla.
The striker was forced wide as he took the ball round Boyko, but maintained his composure to finish.
At that point it seemed all but inevitable that Dnipro would wilt in the face of the red storm.
Their run in the Europa League, though, has been characterised by doggedness and they showed tremendous resourcefulness not merely to dig in but to change their game plan and take the game to Sevilla.
Yevhen Konoplyanka, whose contract expires in the summer and who has been linked to Liverpool and Tottenham, drew a fine stretching save from Rico after performing his signature trick of cutting in from the left, before the equaliser arrived in the final minute of the half. The midfielder Rotan flicked a delicious free-kick over the wall and inside the left-hand post.
Reyes had been at the heart of most of Sevilla's most dangerous football, offering a reminder of the player Zinedine Zidane once described as "playing like he was on a motorbike" but he was withdrawn just before the hour.
It was, on the face of it, a mystifying move, and the 31-year-old seemed reluctant to leave the pitch to be replaced by Coke.
The logic, though, was perhaps to try to neuter the increasing threat of Konoplyanka with a more defensive full back than Aleix Vidal, who until recently was more usually seen as a winger. Vidal, who has reportedly been the subject of interest from Barcelona, took Reyes’s place on the right side of the creative trident.
After the fireworks of the first half, the game settled into a more predictable pattern in the early part of the second, Sevilla dominating possession and territory and Dnipro looking dangerous on the break. Boyko has been a key presence in Dnipro’s run to the final, but he looked uneasy dealing with a succession of corners and it took a brave block from Yevhen Cheberyachko to deny Krychowiak.
Gradually, the pressure was cranked up again and, as in the first half, Dnipro eventually cracked. Stéphane Mbia prodded a dropping ball forward after 72 minutes and, although Jaba Kankava half-blocked it, Vitolo reacted sharply enough to prod the ball through for Bacca, who jabbed a finish past Boyko.
It was not the prettiest goal but it was a strike that showed just how valuable poaching reflexes can still be in a game that has largely moved away from the sniffer type of forward (although the 28-year-old Bacca is far more rounded than that).
This time, Dnipro couldn’t come back. By the final minutes they seemed exhausted, emotional as well as physical energy spent.
The desire for a victory that might offer some token of comfort to and solidarity with those in the Ukrainian east was worthy enough, but it was not enough to overcome the effervescence of Emery’s Sevilla.