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Sevilla return to Europa League

MADRID (AFP) – A promising season for Sevilla could be in danger of petering out but it would be no surprise if they finished with a flourish in the Europa League.

Their last-16 tie against West Ham starts at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan tonight (Friday 1.45am Brunei time), pitting two of the tournament’s favourites against each other in the first round of the knock-out stage.

But while West Ham have enjoyed an impressive season in the Premier League, where until recently they were challenging for the top four, Sevilla’s Europa League pedigree is unparallelled.

They have won the tournament six times, twice as many as anyone else, with four of those successes coming in the last eight years alone. Apart from Barcelona, Sevilla are surely the team to beat.

Yet there was hope this season could also bring something more – lifting the Copa del Rey, a deep run in the Champions League or, most tantalisingly, winning La Liga.

Atletico Madrid showed last term how crisis at Barcelona and the sense of an era ending at Real Madrid has created an opening, a rare chance for Spain’s traditional challengers to become champions.

Even Sevilla have appeared to smell an opportunity, shifting the emphasis of their transfer strategy away from planning for the future and more towards achieving in the present.

They turned down huge bids for star players like Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos, targets for Chelsea and Newcastle respectively, and instead brought in Anthony Martial on loan from Manchester United.

For most of the season, Sevilla have thrived, cementing themselves as Real Madrid’s only challengers.

There is no doubt Lopetegui has restored his reputation after a nightmare 2018, when he was sacked by Spain on the eve of the World Cup for agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid.

In his first season at Sevilla, Lopetegui led them to Champions League qualification, twice, by finishing fourth in La Liga and then winning the Europa League too.

Last season, they finished fourth again, after losing to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last 16.

Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic fights for the ball. PHOTO: AP

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