Although beginning to enjoy the fruits of his labour 15 months into his Sevilla FC tenure, coach Unai Emery is urging caution as he prepares to face former side Valencia CF in Thursday's UEFA Europa League semi-final first leg.
The 42-year-old left Valencia in 2012 after four years at the helm, boasting an impressive record after 220 games. As one of only three coaches – along with Jacinto Quincoces and Alfredo Di Stéfano – to record more than 100 victories at the club, Emery also led the 2004 UEFA Cup winners to third place in the Liga three times and semi-finals in both the UEFA Europa League and Copa del Rey.
A six-month stint at FC Spartak Moskva followed before the Basque tactician returned to Spain with Sevilla in January 2013 to replace Míchel. His side having recently burst into form – winning 12 of their last 15 games in all competitions – Emery is expecting an exciting all-Spanish semi-final tie against a team now coached by Juan Antonio Pizzi.
"Ours are two very even teams in every sense," explained Emery, whose side are fifth in the domestic leage, three places above their opponents. "It would be a mistake to think we're the favourites to go through because of the current Liga standings. Valencia are a great team and our sole objective now is focusing on [Thursday's first leg] against them."
It was shortly after a scoreless draw against Valencia in Liga at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán last February that Sevilla's upturn in form began. With his position under scrutiny following seven games without a victory, Emery suddenly struck a successful formula. Racking up a club record six consecutive Liga wins – which culminated in a 2-1 triumph at home to Real Madrid CF – the Andalusian giants climbed up the domestic table while booking a place in the UEFA Europa League semi-finals.
"Sevilla need to be more aggressive both in defence and attack," Emery said shortly after his arrival at the 2006 and 2007 UEFA Cup winners. "The tactical side of things won't be as important as the attitude of the players." Offering Croatian international midfielder Ivan Rakitić the captain's armband while eventually getting the best out of players like defender Federico Fazio and Marko Marin has proved pivotal to the coach's reign. The performance of summer arrivals Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro have also been instrumental with the forwards supplying 40 goals between them this season, eight of which have come in the UEFA Europa League.
"That they have scored 40 is well and above expectations but they also owe those goals to their team-mates," Emery explained after the 4-0 weekend win at home to Granada CF, which took Sevilla to within three points of a UEFA Champions League qualifying berth. "[Everyone] must have the objective of the team not conceding and from there, find the way. We are solid and compact."
In a coaching career that has now taken in Lorca Deportiva CF, UD Almería, Valencia and Spartak, Emery – the son and grandson of former goalkeepers – would delight in winning a first major title. Although the outcome of the last-four encounter against Valencia "guarantees a Spanish representative in the final", the Sevilla coach is hoping it is his side who can reach the Turin showpiece in May. He said: "This will be a beautiful tie that will excite everyone, but we want to achieve something important in this UEFA Europa League."
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