On a tense night, two experts of football fought for the gold medal. One of them is none other than the ‘Special One’, who previously had never lost a single European Cup final. On the other hand, long in the shadows, Jose Luis Mendilibar. The ex-Eibar manager found himself in his first European final, ever. But on May 31st, 2023, the ‘Special One’ was not special enough. Or so it seems.
Mendilibar was a nobody on the global scene, three months ago. Jorge Sampaoli was let go by Sevilla in March, and an old familiar face appeared. His previous short spell at relegation-bound Deportivo Alaves was a forgettable one, but La Liga hipsters will remember the name for his spell at Eibar. As far back as 2015, the Basque coach found his team temporarily in European spots, before dropping off. Yet the intensity his sides brought remained glued to his name for La Liga’s gurus.
In a world where low blocks were rising, following the ascension of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, Mendilibar pressed high, very high. A suicide mission for some, even. Eibar however kept putting top teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona on the ropes, although they were often able to sucker punch through the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. It’s only in 2021 that there was a noticeable drop-off, and a relegation followed, Mendilibar’s contract discontinued.
Sevilla were far from being in a good spot when Mendilibar took over, and that was his profile. He was not the young ambitious Julian Nagelsmann, Xavi Hernandez or Xabi Alonso, but he wasn’t an old timer with a low-block style. He was aggressive in his playing style, but calm in his press conferences. “I don’t know what could be a more important match than this one, it’s my first time, but in these moments predictions and what people say doesn’t matter. It’s about being accurate and making as few errors as possible,” Mendilibar declared in the pre-final press conference.
On the other hand, Jose Mourinho is a regular European winner, and this cup had to be his. AS Roma, true to typical Mourinho manner, scraped a 1-0 win against Xabi’s younger Bayer Leverkusen, defending several dozens of shots whilst scoring from a single one. The classic ‘Mourinho Bus’, as some like to call it. Jose Mourinho was there to win – not to play.
It seemed as if it was going to happen, again. It seemed as if the stars had aligned. Paulo Dybala, the forgotten Argentinian magician, picked up his wand, and scored. The 35th minute, possibly the worst time to concede a goal in the face of Mourinho’s theatre. A 1-0 lead, in a final, with Jose Mourinho orchestrating? A nightmare.
It seemed as if Sevilla would not be able to come back. Ivan Rakitic came close from far, the subsequent sigh looked grim.
Mendilibar, in his calm expertise, ruminated, and subbed Suso on. His team needed a dynamic element, some to light the touchpaper in the game. For his team was outnumbered in the centre, and it needed to be more aggressive. The Romans were feeling free in their empire, pushing their opponents into a regular U-shape, with little threat besides a few crosses, barely a threat if anything.
The second half arrived, and Mendilibar, behind the scenes, adjusted his team. They focused on applying their pressing scheme better, daring to attack more without the ball. And Roma panicked. And panicked, some more. Until they lost the ball, and as soon as the fifty-fifth minute, Mancini had scored an own goal. Poor Mancini, an own goal in a final with Mourinho. Lord knows what punishment the emperor doled out.
In any case, it was 1-1, suddenly. The tide changed, dramatically. Sevilla found the ball, and more importantly, found the centre of the pitch. Suddenly, Nemanja Gudelj, Jesus Navas and Rakitic all found their two against ones. The veteran full-back, already 37, was free and he bombed forwards, it seemed as if Roma could only hold on a little longer. The game started becoming messy, fouls left and right, as Erik Lamela and Rakitic among others were booked. It suddenly was not a 2023 Cup final, but a 1990s game full of fouls, scrapping for the next tackle. The aesthetics weren’t present.
Sevilla however never capitalised on the advantage. Was it the nerves? Was it the fact that they realised they had a shot at the trophy they already won so many times, after a season where they were almost fighting relegation, at some point even in the relegation zone, but a few months later, in the Europa League final, with real chances for the silverware they were so much cherished? Whatever it was, their nerves were visible.
In classic Mourinho manner, his anger continued. He yelled, plotted, and his competitive insanity grew exponentially as the second half of the extra-time was about to finish. His side had not scored, nor been close to it. And penalties were coming.
Sevilla, under the command of Bono, the tall Moroccan goalkeeper that had remained the calm eye of the storm, saved the penalties. It was up to the dreaded Argentine clique, composed of Montiel, Lucas Ocampos, and Lamela to prove to Monchi it was a good job he had not gotten rid of them. And as such, a 4-1 was delivered. This was the Argentine Sevilla that won it, under the guidance of the ex-yugoslavs in Rakitic and Gudelj. And it’s also as high as Mendilibar might ever get. They didn’t only avoid relegation, they did not only keep their spot in the Europa League, they won it. In a few months, Mendilibar went from unemployed to winner, and next season, should he continue, a Champions League coach.