The Italian champions are rightly regarded as favourites to win the trophy in front of their own fans, but Benfica are the toughest opposition they could have met at this stage
By Peter Staunton
Juventus were parachuted into the Europa League after their elimination from the Champions League group stages and immediately installed as favourites to win the tournament.
Matches against Trabzonspor and Fiorentina were relatively straightforward, while a team of decent European calibre in Olympique Lyonnais were overcome in the quarter-finals.
Their exit from the Champions League hurt but the fact that the Europa League final is to be played at Juventus Stadium gave them an immediate chance to recover some dignity by winning a European title in front of their own fans.
Antonio Conte's side have been led through the knockout stages by the brilliant Andrea Pirlo and are now only two legs away from their dream final. That should provide enough inspiration for the Bianconeri as they prepare to tangle with Benfica - but now it gets serious.
Juventus would have been happier with either Valencia or Sevilla in the draw for the semi-finals because facing Benfica represents the most troublesome path. The Portuguese contenders are a side of equal, if not greater, continental standing than Juventus in recent years and will take considerable effort to overcome.
"We are very happy to have reached this stage and reaching the final in Turin is a great motivation, but it will be tough to beat Benfica," Juve board member Pavel Nedved told Uefa.com. "They were in the final last year and this is their third semi-final in four years. That shows the great experience of this team."
Benfica's pedigree in this competition is strong. They have won all but three of their 19 home ties in this competition since 2009. Semi-finalists in 2011, they were beaten narrowly by Braga but recovered to go all the way to the final in 2013, where Chelsea defeated them. This season they are back in the last four again.
Domestically, they have seized control of the Primeira Liga from Porto and established themselves as one of the strongest, most exciting teams in Europe. This is a clash of two Champions League standard teams who can count themselves unlucky not to be still among the contenders for the big competition. They are champions-elect in Portugal and Italy respectively and will be back for another shot at the big time next year.
Juventus will still be considered the favourites for the competition. The final four, though, is as strong as it could possibly be at this stage. There will be no easy route through to the final for the Old Lady. If they reach the final, they will do so on merit.
In the other semi-final, Unai Emery is back at the Mestalla. Two years after being relieved of his duties at Valencia, the 42-year-old has dragged Sevilla to the last four of the Europa League and into contention for a place in next season's Champions League through their league form.
Given Sevilla's difficulties last summer, in which they lost Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Gary Medel, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Luis Alberto, this has been a truly remarkable season. New signings like Kevin Gameiro and Carlos Bacca have impressed, while Ivan Rakitic has stepped up to become arguably the best foreign midfielder in Spain this season.
Valencia, for their part, are the most erratic of teams. The two sides of Juan Antonio Pizzi's team were in evidence in the quarter-finals. They lost 3-0 to Basel in one of their worst displays of the season before recovering impressively to win against the nine-man Swiss side 5-0 in the return leg.
Los Che have some decent emerging talent who will pose problems for Sevilla's backline in the excellent Paco Alcacer, Fede and Juan Bernat. They have the advantage of the second leg being played at home. If they can avoid a trouncing like the one they took in Switzerland, they will be in with a great chance.
The tie also offers the chance of revenge for Valencia. They lost out on a Champions League spot after losing to Sevilla 4-3 in the last game of the season, which handed fourth place to Real Sociedad.
Juventus remain in pole position for Europa League glory, but it will be no easy ride.