The whole world is talking about the upcoming clash between European superclubs Barcelona and Juventus in the Champions League final on June 6 in Berlin. Barcelona’s takedown of Bayern Munich, and Juventus’ surprising victory over the defending champions, Real Madrid, provided football fans everywhere with four compelling matches over the past two weeks. (ICYMI you absolutely must watch Lionel Messi’s elegant and astonishing second goal from the first leg in which he made a world-class defender literally fall over with his magical footwork and ballhandling. Here it is.)
But in other world football news, the Europa League semifinals finished up today, and in a shocking result, Ukrainian side FC Dnipro, from Boston’s partner city of Dnepropetrovsk, beat Italian club Napoli 1:0 to win the home-and-home series 2:1 on aggregate and advance to the final. Waiting for them are last year’s champions, Sevilla, and Dnipro will certainly be underdogs on May 27 in Warsaw when they take the field for the final.
Comparing the Europa League to the Champions League is a little tricky. It’s not like the NCAA Tournament vs. the NIT in college basketball, because nobody cares about the NIT, including teams that are playing in it. The Europa League is taken seriously, and while the clubs might not be the best in the world, on any given night any club in the Europa League could play a competitive match against a Champions League side. So I guess it’s more like comparing the better college football bowl games (Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, etc.) with the minor ones (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Autozone Liberty Bowl, New Era Pinstripe Bowl, you get it). From my perspective, any competitive European club match is worth watching, and usually an Israeli team can get a few rounds into the Europa League, so I pay attention.
The path of Dnipro to the final was not an easy one. Forced to play their home games in Kiev, 270 miles northeast of Dnepropetrovsk, due to the ongoing unrest in eastern and central Ukraine, they progressed through the competition’s knockout stages besting the likes of Olympiakos, Ajax, and Club Brugge en route to their fixtures with Napoli. After scoring a precious away goal in Naples last week during a 1:1 draw, a beautiful header from Yevhen Seleznyov in a driving rainstorm on Thursday in Kiev provided Dnipro with the only offense they would need, as they held their back line and defended stoutly throughout the second half. Only the intervention of the crossbar on another plucky header late in the game denied a second goal for the home side and kept the outcome in doubt well into the five minutes of stoppage time.
Waiting for them are Sevilla, who sit in fifth place in Spain’s La Liga title, and who won last year’s Europa League final against Benfica on penalties after a dud of a 0:0 game. And this year, as if the two teams need any added incentive, for the first time ever the Europa League winner will get an automatic qualification into the group stages of the Champions League, with its lucrative TV contract and multi-million Euro payday for all teams that qualify. For a little club like Dnipro, especially given the troubles in Ukraine, that would be a major accomplishment… not to mention a financial home run.
So for those of you who have been to Dnep, attended a Vodkas and Latkes event, gone on Havayah, or know about the incredible Jewish community and Boston-Dnep connection, make sure to tune in to Fox Sports on May 27 to root for FC Dnipro as they try to make history at the National Stadium in Warsaw.