Argentina, River Plate provide Europa League final intrigue

There will be no dream end to the season for Sevilla‘s Marcos Acuna, who is suspended for Wednesday’s final of the Europa League against AS Roma. The star left-back — who came off the bench for Argentina in the World Cup victory over France — was sent off in the second leg of Sevilla’s semifinal and thus will miss the decider in Budapest.

But there could be a dream end to 2022-23 campaign for Acuna’s teammate for club and country. Gonzalo Montiel, who is Argentina’s reserve right-back, is in contention for a place in the Sevilla starting XI. He is competing with local legend Jesus Navas, who got the nod for both legs of the semifinal against Juventus. Montiel may have to settle for a place on José Luis Mendilibar’s bench, but there is always a chance that he will be introduced as an impact sub for the 37-year-old Navas.

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And if the match goes all the way to a penalty shootout, then Sevilla will be able to look to Montiel with confidence. Off the bench in the World Cup final, he was the player who calmly stroked home the decisive penalty. Montiel was possibly the least glamorous figure imaginable for such a vital moment. But as he stepped up to the spot, those who knew him had no doubt that he would keep his cool and rise to the occasion.

Montiel, who came through the ranks with River Plate, has been part of the Sevilla dressing room for two seasons now. And he is not the only link between the Andalucian club and Buneos Aires powerhouse — although he is probably the least heralded.

At the other end of the glamour scale is Sevilla’s attacking midfielder Erik Lamela, who as a River Plate youngster received a big money bid from Barcelona. Featured on the front covers of the Argentine sports press, he was always seen as the special one. It is true, though, that Lamela had a tough baptism to his senior career. He broke into the River Plate lineup, and was handed the mythical No. 10 shirt, at the very moment that the team went on an alarming slide.

It was perhaps too much for a teenager to cope with and, as rival supporters love to remind them, at the end of the 2010-11 season River suffered a humiliating relegation to the second division. It got him off to a difficult start — indeed, the occasional spiky edge to his play could well be the product of a sense of frustration that his career has never consistently hit the heights that were once expected.

His eight years at Tottenham Hotspur were never entirely convincing, and it is probably true that he played his best football in the preceding two seasons with Roma. While Lamela’s memorable rabona goal for Tottenham won the Puskas Prize in 2021, helping Sevilla win an unprecedented seventh Europa League title could prove the biggest moment of his playing days.

Lamela scored the goal against Juventus in the semifinal that guaranteed Sevilla’s presence in Budapest, although he, like Montiel, is by no means certain to start against Roma. Of Sevilla’s ex-River Plate trio, the only one to be named in the first team for either of the two semifinal legs was Lucas Ocampos. The powerful winger, who had been loaned to Ajax, returned to Sevilla and has been an important part of his side’s Europa League challenge.

It is striking how much the story of River Plate’s relegation more than a decade ago swirls around this Europa League final. While Lamela played in the team that was relegated, Ocampos who was a part of the side that won promotion. The 28-year-old started with Quilmes, his local club, before being picked up by River after starring for Argentina at Under-15 level. He broke into the first team just as Lamela was checking out, and made his name in River’s successful promotion campaign. He played just one game in the first division before moving to Europe as soon as he turned 18.

And one of Ocampos’ opponents during that promotion push, as he will be on Wednesday, was Paulo Dybala. Now with Roma after a successful stint with Juventus, Dybala made his name in that 2011-12 season with Instituto of Cordoba. At the end of the season he transferred to Palermo of Italy where, for a player whose experience was limited to Argentina’s second division, he adapted quickly and did extremely well.

Dybala’s impish talent is beyond doubt, but he is another one who may well have to be content with a place on Jose Mourinho’s bench for Wednesday’s match as he struggles with an injury. His big match temperament has been questioned — although, in what so far has been a distinctly underwhelming international career, he was another who came off the bench in the World Cup final and made no mistake from the penalty spot under the intense pressure.

Whichever way Wednesday’s match shakes out — with Dybala helping Roma or Sevilla winning with their River Plate alumni — fans of Argentina will have something else to celebrate.