- How to follow:
- Listen on BBC Radio 5 live; text commentary on the BBC Sport website
When news surfaced in May that a group of Sevilla players had jeopardised La Liga’s impending restart by breaking lockdown restrictions for a joint family get-together, there were no prizes for guessing one of the culprits: Ever Banega.
The Argentine midfielder has a long-held reputation for being, to put it kindly, not quite the sharpest tool in the shed.
He demonstrated that trait again just a few weeks later, shortly before the return of the Europa League, by flouting social distancing measures in a Valencia night club where 12 employees had received positive Covid-19 tests.
Fortunately, on both occasions Banega subsequently tested negative and he is now preparing to use his laser-like passing ability – which contrasts sharply with his off-the-pitch image – to stand between Manchester United and a place in the Europa League final.
Wild child and self-inflicted woes
This is Banega’s last week as a Sevilla player, after he agreed to join Saudi club Al-Shabab when this elongated season finally ends.
And the 32-year-old will be sorely missed after gradually but firmly establishing himself as one of Spanish football’s best midfielders, having first arrived in the country in 2008 when Valencia signed him from boyhood club Boca Juniors.
By then, he was already known as a wild child after ‘celebrating’ Argentina’s triumph in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup by trashing a hotel room with some team-mates in the style of a rampaging rock band.
He was slow to settle with Valencia, not helped by an unsavoury incident involving self-exposure and a webcam, and he was loaned to Atletico Madrid for the 2008-09 season – which saw him underline his reputation as a trouble-maker by getting sent off twice in five league starts.
Banega’s tendency for self-inflicted woes peaked in 2012, when he was sidelined for seven months after breaking his leg by running himself over with his own car at a petrol station.
Despite those misdemeanours, Banega gradually became a key player for Valencia and showed that, when he was on his game, he could match up against any opponent.
Pep Guardiola acknowledged his ability during the latter stages of his time as Barcelona manager, praising the midfielder as “a fantastic player… we really have to concentrate to limit his effectiveness”.
But indiscipline remained a problem, and Banega was forced to publicly apologise to Valencia fans after reports that he turned up drunk for a training session after another late night.
His largely frustrating Valencia career came to an underwhelming end in January 2014 when he was loaned to Newell’s Old Boys in his hometown Rosario, and he appeared destined to remain an unfulfilled talent.
But redemption lay around the corner.
Finally flourishing with Sevilla
Sevilla’s director of football Monchi is world-renowned for his ability to cajole greatness out of under-performers, and one of his landmark successes came in the summer of 2014 with the signing of Banega.
It was a second chance to thrive in Europe and, finally showing signs of maturity, Banega grabbed it with both hands.
The midfielder started to make more headlines for his performances on the field than his proclivities off it, including a man-of-the-match performance as Sevilla regained the Europa League title with a 3-2 victory over Dnipro in the 2015 final.
He was also instrumental as the Andalusians took the trophy for an unprecedented third consecutive year in 2016 by beating Liverpool 3-1 in the final, and his consistent excellence earned a summer switch to Inter Milan.
The move to Italy didn’t really work out, and a year later he was back in Sevilla to become the midfield fulcrum of a team that has always known how to play to his strengths.
This has been perhaps his best season yet. Coach Julen Lopetegui’s preference for controlled possession (Sevilla averaged 58.4% possession, third-highest in La Liga) perfectly suits Banega, who uses positional awareness and perceptive passing to orchestrate his team’s attacking play.
Banega attempted 86.3 passes per 90 minutes during the league campaign, the second-highest of all midfielders in La Liga (Sergio Busquets averaged 93.6, with Toni Kroos on 85.2). And many of those were into the danger area – 104 of his passes resulted in shots on goal, the league’s fifth-highest tally.
Before Sunday’s semi-final, Manchester United don’t have to look far to find an example of Banega at his best: he was outstanding in Tuesday’s quarter-final victory over Wolves, capping a man-of-the-match performance by delivering a pinpoint cross for Lucas Ocampos’s late headed winner.
As usual, everything went through Banega: he had 139 touches and completed 109 passes to dwarf Wolves’ respective individual highs of 43 (Matt Doherty) and 26 (Willy Boli).
That game showed, once again, that the midfielder’s on-pitch intelligence is the polar opposite of his off-the-field carelessness.
And the conclusion for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is simple: if you want to stop Sevilla, you have to stop Ever Banega.