COLOGNE, Germany — Not even the coronavirus could stop Sevilla's love affair with the Europa League.
Never mind that the final was three months late and without fans, the Spanish club secured a record sixth title in the competition Friday, beating Inter Milan 3-2 in Cologne.
It's a competition made to measure for Sevilla. The club's big enough to have qualified for Europe for the last seven seasons. However, it hasn't come close in that time to breaking Real Madrid and Barcelona's hold on La Liga, let alone challenging for the Champions League.
“It's incredible. We had such tough games, I think, the whole tournament but we played so well as a team, and you could see it during the tournament. We were really a team, like a family,” Sevilla forward Luuk de Jong said after scoring with two headers.
“We worked together and it didn't matter who played, who came on the pitch, everyone was working for each other.”
Defeating Inter made it six titles from six finals for Sevilla, which has won every time it's reached the last eight. The opponents it's beaten in finals along the way range from storied European clubs like Liverpool, Inter and Benfica to the more obscure likes of Middlesbrough and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Sevilla loves the Europa League “more than anyone else,” sporting director Ramón “Monchi” Rodríguez told The Associated Press ahead of the final. That was underlined throughout the game as club staff and officials sang and cheered from the upper tier, creating the semblance of a crowd in an almost empty stadium.
“I’m very pleased as coach," Sevilla's Julen Lopetegui said through a translator. “We've been working hard all season to achieve our targets.”
Acknowledging the restrictions still in place around Europe because of the coronavirus, he urged fans “to be cautious in their celebrations, to be aware of the circumstances.”
Sevilla won't be in next season's Europa League, at least not at first. Its fourth-place finish in La Liga was good enough to qualify for a Champions League group-stage place, even without the spot on offer for the Europa League winner.
It was the 238th and last Sevilla game for midfielder Ever Banega, who won his third Europa League title and now heads to Saudi Arabia next season.
Banega signed off in style, swinging in the free kick for de Jong to head in Sevilla's second goal. He also struck the free kick which indirectly led to the winner. Inter failed to clear, allowing Diego Carlos to hit an overhead kick which Inter forward Romelu Lukaku diverted into his own net.
“He has really helped in terms of our mentality, which is absolutely essential for Sevilla," Lopetegui said, adding that Banega knew he was leaving but “he has always given 100%, every ounce of strength and energy."
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James Ellingworth, The Associated Press