By Brian Homewood
Juventus and Benfica are both in defiant mood ahead of Thursday’s Europa League clash where a single goal for the Serie A side would take them to their first European final for 11 years.
Juventus coach Antonio Conte took another swipe at his critics after a 3-1 win at Sassuolo on Monday left his side needing one victory in three games to clinch a third successive Serie A title.
Benfica, who have wrapped up the Portuguese league and are on course for a domestic treble after two backs-to-the-wall cup semi-final wins over Porto, are also in feisty mood having bouncing back from last season’s disappointment when they finished runners-up in three competitions.
Benfica, sunk by a last-gasp Chelsea goal in last season’s final and beaten semi-finalists in 2010-11, take a 2-1 lead to Turin for the semi-final second leg.
Juventus will play the final at their own stadium if they qualify and Conte has taken exception to suggestions that the Europa League is a mere consolation after they were knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage.
“Anything Juventus do becomes almost expected,” he told reporters.
“If we win the Europa League, it will be considered a worthless trophy. If we lose, then people will say that Juventus aren’t ready for Europe.”
Conte, fiercely competitive, has rebuilt Juventus into the dominant force in Italian football in his three years as coach, collecting plenty of rivalries on the way.
In the last few weeks, he has become involved in angry exchanges with Russia coach Fabio Capello, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, Napoli’s Rafael Benitez and AS Roma boss Rudi Garcia who suggested on Monday that Conte was “nervous.”
“What excites me is these three years in charge of Juventus. This has been a truly incredible journey,” said Conte, dismissing Garcia’s comment.
Benfica have shown great resilience this season, reaching both the Portuguese Cup and Portuguese League Cup finals with dramatic semi-final wins over rivals Porto after playing for an hour with 10 men in both games.
“It’s been a very gratifying season, we are in both finals in Portugal and still in the fight for the Europa League,” said temperamental Benfica coach Jorge Jesus, who clung on to his job after last season’s disappointments.
Juventus are unbeaten at home in Europe this season, but have kept only one clean sheet in those games, while Benfica have won their last four away fixtures in European competition.
It is only the third time the two sides have met in Europe with one win for Benfica in the European Cup semi-finals in 1968 and one for Juventus in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1993.
Conte said he believed that Juve’s fans could be decisive as they attempt to reach their first European final since theChampions League in 2003.
“I reiterate that I want the supporters to create a fiery cauldron in the stadium on Thursday, just as Benfica’s fans did in Lisbon,” he said.
“We want to play with 12 men.”
In the other semi-final, Valencia will take inspiration from their comeback win over Basel in the last round as they bid to reach the final by overhauling a 2-0 first-leg loss to Sevilla.