Defiant Dnipro stun Napoli in Ukraine to reach Europa League final
Rafael Benitez’s hopes of winning a third Europa League crown with three different clubs were dashed by a defiant Dnipro outfit, as Napoli stunningly stumbled to a 1-0 defeat at the Olympic Stadium in their semi-final second leg encounter.
Former Liverpool boss Benitez had lifted this trophy with both Valencia and Chelsea, but Dnipro ensured their fate in the Warsaw-based final, with Yevhen Seleznyov’s second-half header securing a historic victory and progression to their first ever European final.
Having been held to a shock 1-1 draw on home soil, the Little Donkey’s made the daunting trip to Ukraine needing an away goal of their own, with David Lopez’s first leg opener having been cancelled out by a late Seleznyov strike.
The hopeful hosts opted to utilise their away goal hero Seleznyov from the start in the second leg, knowing the Serie A side would be pushing hard for that vital away strike which would see them through to the final, but the visitors surprisingly left out creative skipper Marek Hamsik from their starting line-up.
Manolo Gabbiadini was the man preferred to over the captain in the number 10 role, and he was involved immediately at both ends, first winning a free-kick in a dangerous position, then clumsily conceding a foul on the edge of the Napoli box when Dnirpo had countered, but no real threat unfolded.
Deep-lying playamker Gokhan Inler handed Argentine frontman Gonzalo Higuain a glorious chance within the opening 10 minutes, but the usually clinical striker was denied by a reflex save from the towering presence of Dnipro stopper Denys Boyko, continuing the sublime form he showed in Naples which constantly thwarted Napoli’s key goal threat.
After failing to make an impact until the late stages in Italy, Myron Markevych’s side started a lot brighter this time around, keeping possession more confidently and getting their widemen Valeriy Luchkevych and Yevhen Konoplyanka continuously involved in swift build-up play.
As rain continued to fall heavily on the Olympic Stadium in Kiev during the first-half, Napoli rapidly poured pressure on Dnipro’s defence, with Inler dictating the pace from midfield and Jose Callejon constantly dropping deep to leave space for his strike partner Higuain.
Former Real Madrid marksman Callejon was the subject of many rash challenges from the hosts’ tight marking defenders, and the tough treatment had an effect on the Spaniard, as he struggled to create any clear-cut chances, while Gabbiadini picked up a booking after half an hour of play for a strong tackle of his own.
Higuain’s attempts to finally thwart Boyko were proving an impossible task, as the Dnipro number one swiftly got down to his left post to stop a close-range header from the Argentina international forward, as he frustratedly threw his arms towards the down-pouring sky in disbelief.
As half-time approached, first leg goalscorer Seleznyov almost capitalised on a mistake in midfield from Lopez, as he saw his driven effort kept out by a reactive shut-out from Mariano Andujar, keeping the Ukrainian’s in control at the break, despite a late attacking onslaught from the Italian outfit.
The hosts almost strengthened their narrow advantage within minutes of the restart, when Luchkevych latched on to a lovely chipped through ball from Seleznyov, but the winger’s low curling effort could only find the side netting.
Creative striker Seleznyov then had a chance of his own but, having received the ball wide left, after a great run from wing-threat Konoplyanka, he fluffed another great opening.
Moments before the hour mark, Benitez introduced stalwart skipper Hamsik into proceedings, but the Slovakia international captain could do nothing as Konoplyanka and Seleznyov linked up again, this time with a clinical outcome, as the latter delicately headed home a deadly cross to deliver a fatal blow to Napoli’s final hopes.
Lopez looked to have given his side a lifeline when his curling left-footed effort hurdled towards the bottom left corner, but an in-form Boyko was able to quickly smother any danger. Seconds later, the busy shot-stopper was uncharacteristically left stranded, with Brazilian centre back Douglas Silva managing to clear Higuain’s lofted shot off the line.
The defiant Ukrainian outfit were able to hold on, though, and fend off a late assault from their desperate Italian opposition, setting up an incredible Europa League final showdown with holders Sevilla, who easily dispatched Fiorentina 2-0 in the other semi-final encounter.