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So far, so good: Pick of the UEFA Europa League

Published: Friday 16 May 2014, 8.54CET
A 4,600km journey, a 50m strike and possibly the largest travelling contingent in the history of UEFA club competitions were among the highlights of a great season.

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Published: Friday 16 May 2014, 8.54CET

So far, so good: Pick of the UEFA Europa League

A 4,600km journey, a 50m strike and possibly the largest travelling contingent in the history of UEFA club competitions were among the highlights of a great season.

Team: Sevilla FC
No one played as many games in the UEFA Europa League as Sevilla this season; Unai Emery's steely but stylish side made it all the way from the third qualifying round to the final – their 19th European game of the season. Anchored by captain Ivan Rakitić in midfield, goals were shared around the team – four for Carlos Bacca, five for Kevin Gameiro – with a collective spirit helping them recover from a 2-0 home defeat to get the better of city rivals Real Betis Balompié on penalties in the round of 16, and then oust former winners FC Porto and Valencia CF to make it to Turin.

"We started playing in August and have come a long way since," defender Federico Fazio said ahead of the final. "We came back against Betis and Valencia, and we've done the same in league matches. We fight till the end in every match." Too true.

Player: Ricardo Quaresma (FC Porto)
"To be inspired, I need to be happy," said Ricardo Quaresma when interviewed earlier this season. Judging by the winger's scintillating performances in the 2013/14 UEFA Europa League, his January return to Porto has purged 'Harry Potter' of the discontentment of recent years, when his wanderlust deprived Europe's top competitions of his magic.

Efficient and entertaining in equal measure, Quaresma lit up the knockout stage, wreaking havoc on the flanks with his quick feet and outrageous skills. His audacity, aligned with a remarkable technical ability, brought him three goals – each of which could comfortably contend for a goal of the season gong – and two assists, along with plaudits aplenty and a place in Portugal's provisional FIFA World Cup squad. "I'm convinced that I'm not inferior to the best," said the 30-year-old in the same interview. On this form, it is a statement few would contradict.

Goal: Jonatan Soriano (FC Salzburg)
"That was definitely the best goal I can remember scoring," a still-bewildered Jonatan Soriano told UEFA.com after his stunning 50-metre strike helped FC Salzburg blow AFC Ajax away in their round of 32 opener. Collecting possession in his own half, Soriano stole the show by firing over Ajax keeper Jasper Cillessen from close to the halfway line. The power and placement of the shot were perfect, and needed to be – the unfortunate victim Cillessen was by no means reckless in his positioning.

Few reputations have soared as dramatically as Soriano's this term, the Salzburg captain having taken this tournament by storm. The 28-year-old Spanish forward, who moved to Austria from FC Barcelona B in 2012, hit a hat-trick in the play-offs and then plundered a remarkable eight goals in seven appearances in the competition proper to take the top scorer's crown.

Quote
"I congratulate my players and there is nothing I can criticise. We leave with heads held high and there is no point dwelling on this. We have another final on Sunday."
SL Benfica coach Jorge Jesus takes his side's final defeat with dignity and swiftly turns the focus to Sunday's Portuguese Cup decider

Number: 4,600
FC Shakhter Karagandy's trip to AZ Alkmaar on matchday four clocked in at 4,600km each way, the furthest any team has ever travelled for a UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League group stage game. Their reward was a 1-0 defeat. A fortnight earlier, AZ had made the opposite trip, but stopped 200km short of Karaganda as Shakhter played their home games in Astana.

Unlikely hero: Emmet Malone
With Fenerbahçe SK unable to compete in this season's tournament, the UEFA Emergency Panel decided a draw would determine which losing team from the play-off round would be reinstated. Emmet Malone, a journalist from the Republic of Ireland – a country with no clubs in the group stage – was invited to make the draw, and drew APOEL FC, little realising the reaction that was in store.

One of the Cypriot side's fans tweeted that he would name a pub after the Irishman, while another named his son after him. Offered a complimentary trip by the club to watch a game, Malone suggested "that one act of complete randomness might most appropriately be repaid by another". APOEL obliged, paying for 11-year-old Dublin boy James Mohan, who loves football but cannot play because of a heart condition, his younger brother Thomas and their mother Brenda to visit Nicosia for the visit of Eintracht Frankfurt.

Semi-final heartbreak: Juventus and Valencia CF
When Juventus transferred into the UEFA Europa League, they did so supremely motivated by the knowledge that the final was to be held in their stadium. Having overcome Trabzonspor AŞ, ACF Fiorentina and Olympique Lyonnais, the Bianconeri nevertheless found Benfica obdurate opposition in the last four, losing 2-1 on aggregate. Their dreams of making Turin proud were over. "We must keep our heads up because we know we gave everything we had to reach the final," said defender Leonardo Bonucci.

The famous Yogi Berra saying that "It ain't over 'til it's over" rang true in Valencia, meanwhile. With Sevilla 3-0 down in the second leg and heading out, Stéphane Mbia struck in the 94th minute to take the Rojiblancos through on away goals, leaving home keeper Diego Alves distraught. "This is the saddest day I've experienced since I came here," he said.

Oldest stager: Brad Friedel (Tottenham Hotspur FC)
The UEFA Europa League is often famed for unearthing the continent's next big talents but, on matchday four, Brad Friedel proved that there is still room for old stagers to shine. Aged 42 years and 173 days when he contested the north London club's 2-1 victory against FC Sheriff, the Spurs goalkeeper beat the competition record for oldest player set by FC Twente's Sander Boschker by 140 days, and was 42 years and 306 days old in his final game of the campaign – a 2-2 draw at Benfica.

"I didn't even know about it," Friedel told UEFA.com after the Sheriff game, while revealing the secret to his longevity. "The record says that I've been playing for a long time and that I've kept myself fit. I had no idea that I was going to break a record but I'm proud of the fact that I'm still playing aged 42. I keep myself fit by doing a lot of yoga."

Travelling army: Eintracht Frankfurt
"It was unbelievable, awesome," enthused one of Frankfurt's 12,000 intrepid supporters after watching the German club seal their spot in the round of 32 with a 1-0 win at FC Girondins de Bordeaux. Three charter planes, 70 coaches and hundreds of mini-buses were organised to ferry the largest away contingent in UEFA Europa League history – outstripping the 10,000 fans VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach took to SS Lazio last season.

"People have a real thirst for this," explained Die Adler fanatic Bernd, whose succession of train journeys had started at 5.00am on the day of the game. "We've been desperate for European events, and now we're getting the opportunity we're taking it. I had to take two days off work, but it's worth it."

Pioneer spirit: PFC Ludogorets Razgrad
The starting lineup for the group stage included representatives from 27 nations – half of UEFA's member associations – and few embraced the competition's spirit of adventure quite like Stoicho Stoev's Ludogorets. One of nine domestic champions in the group phase, the Bulgarian side made it all the way to the round of 16 in only their second season in Europe, drawing huge crowds in Sofia – 400km from their home town – and upstaging PSV Eindhoven and SS Lazio en route to eventual defeat at the hands of Valencia.

"Nobody was thinking we would go through the group stage and we were top," midfielder Mihail Aleksandrov told UEFA.com. "We were drawn against Lazio and we thought 'It's over', but we went through." They were to fall but the season has had a happy ending with a second Bulgarian double in three years.

Last updated: 16/05/14 9.25CET

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