Juventus seeks 1st European title since scandal
ROME (AP) — When Juventus visits Benfica in the first leg of the Europa League semifinals Thursday, it will mark the first appearance for the once dominant Turin club in the final four of a European competition since finishing runner-up in the 2003 Champions League.
After the 2006 Italian match-fixing scandal and the subsequent relegation to Serie B, it’s been a long road back to continental prominence for Juventus, which also is closing in on its third straight Serie A title.
While Juve holds an eight-point lead in Serie A with four matches to play, it faces a Benfica squad that clinched the Portuguese title last weekend.
In the other semifinal, Sevilla coach Unai Emery will face his former side Valencia in an all-Spanish matchup.
It is the first time the two clubs have met in European competition, and Sevilla will be confident as it has not lost at home against Valencia for nearly a decade.
Here are five things to know about the Europa League semifinals:
TEVEZ’S 5-YEAR DROUGHT: Juventus forward Carlos Tevez’s goal-scoring drought in European competitions has passed the five-year mark.
The Argentine’s last European goal came on April 7, 2009, for Manchester United when he came off the bench and scored against Porto in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Tevez is among the Serie A leaders with 18 goals this season, but has been bothered by an inflamed thigh muscle lately and has not played a full 90 minutes yet this month.
He is expected to team with Fernando Llorente up front Thursday.
BENFICA’S GHOSTS: Benfica clinched the Portuguese title last weekend with two rounds left to play, helping to banish some of last season’s demons.
The Lisbon club fell at the final hurdles in three competitions last season, including the domestic title race, and ended up with no silverware. It conceded late goals in the Europa League final, when it lost 2-1 to Chelsea, and in the Portuguese Cup against Guimaraes.
Now, apart from reaching the Europa League semifinals, Benfica is also into the final of the Portuguese Cup and the semifinals of the Portuguese League Cup.
As it pursues its 10th European final and two other trophies, its packed game schedule is taking a toll. Argentine winger Salvio (fractured forearm) and Portuguese defender Silvio (broken shin) will miss both the Juventus matches.
EMERY’S REVENGE: Sevilla coach Emery may relish the chance of eliminating Valencia, where the Spanish coach enjoyed four successful seasons before being released.
Emery led Valencia to three straight third-place finishes and, subsequently, into the Champions Leagues between 2008 and ’12 before leaving for Spartak Moscow. The Valencia club has not qualified for Europe’s top-tier event since.
Emery has steered Sevilla to nine victories in its past 10 Spanish league games to put the club on the cusp of qualifying for next season’s Champions League, with Sunday’s match against fourth-place Athletic Bilbao likely to be the decider.
“We feel good about our chances, very confident,” defender Federico Fazio said. “There’s little season left and now is when everything is decided.”
Sevilla is on the verge of returning to the final for the first time since winning a second straight UEFA Cup in 2007.
EUROPEAN HOPES: Valencia likely needs to win the Europa League to qualify for continental soccer next season because it is currently eighth in the Spanish league and unlikely to qualify domestically.
An overdue victory at the Sanchez Pizjuan will aid that cause, though Los Che did come back from a 3-0 first-leg loss at Basel to beat the Swiss 5-3 on aggregate in the quarterfinals.
“Playing in Europe is a whole other matter,” Valencia midfielder Sofiane Feghouli said. “It’s a different style of play.”
Valencia hasn’t won at Sevilla’s ground since it last won the league, in 2004.
70 MILLION EUROS: That’s the transfer price Juventus could set for prized 21-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba once this season ends.
With Paris Saint-German, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all reportedly interested in the rapidly developing France international, it’s tough to imagine Juventus turning down such an offer.
Pogba reminded everyone of his value Saturday when he scored in a laborious 1-0 win over Bologna to virtually seal the Serie A title.
“Until now I haven’t spoken with anyone about my contract or the market or the future,” said Pogba, who has two more seasons remaining on his contract.
AP Sports Writer Paul Logothetis in Madrid and Associated Press writer Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed.
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