Sevilla were unable to achieve the impossible on Thursday night, as they drew 3-3 at home to Real Madrid in a 6-3 aggregate defeat in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey. But they showed enough to suggest that they will be capable of pushing La Liga’s leaders to their limit when the two sides meet again in league action at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday.
The Andalusian side are Madrid’s closest challengers and would move to within one point if they emerge victorious. If they do snap Real’s 40-match unbeaten streak, will Sevilla be considered genuine title contenders?
Their numbers certainly look good. It is necessary to go back 10 years, to the 2006-07 season, to find the last time Sevilla had more than their current total of 36 points at this stage in the campaign. Their goal total of 36 is also their best since that year. Perhaps more impressively, Sevilla are 11 points better off than in their fixtures against the same opponents last season. Their goal difference is 15 goals better.
Let’s be clear: Sevilla didn’t expect to be in this position. With a new coach, 11 new signings and 14 departures, including key players such as Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Kevin Gameiro, the expectation was that they would make a slow start. But that hasn’t been the case. Performances were not always great in the early part of the campaign, but they were still able to pick up points, and they now find themselves in a very strong position.
Indeed, manager Jorge Sampaoli deserves a lot of credit for the manner in which he has steered his side through the first half of the season in what is his first European job. Early attacking excesses were curbed as he set out to establish a more solid base upon which to gradually impose his favoured philosophy. With the experience of former Real Oviedo and Almeria (among many others) coach Juan Manuel Lillo alongside him, he has gradually been able to strike a successful balance between intense offensive play and control of possession.
So impressive has Sampaoli been that recent reports have even linked him with the Barcelona job should Luis Enrique depart at the end of the season. And so impressive have Sevilla been recently that even those at the top of the club have started to suggest that a title challenge, while difficult, may not be beyond them.
“We will continue to accumulate points and if we go into the final weeks with a chance we will fight to the death for that objective,” said sporting director Monchi.
“No one can make Sevilla’s legs tremble,” added president Jose Castro. “Madrid and Barcelona have double our budget but this club doesn’t back down from anything.”
That attitude is one that permeates every corner of the organisation. A hoarding at their stadium reads: “They say they never give up.” And the players always talk about the winning mentality and the desire to fight for every goal that exists within the squad. It even affects new signings, as was evident when 21-year-old defender Clement Lenglet was presented earlier this week.
“Fear?” he said. “We don’t have any fear of competing against Madrid and Barcelona.”
But if Sevilla are to have a semi-realistic chance of challenging for the league title, victory on Sunday will be vital in order to reduce the four-point advantage (plus a game in hand) their visitors now enjoy.
It will certainly not be easy. Madrid extended their unbeaten run to 40 matches in all competitions by avoiding defeat on Thursday night thanks to a late Karim Benzema goal. While Real’s play hasn’t always matched results, Zinedine Zidane has fostered a sense of collective responsibility and ambition that keeps the streak rolling on, one way or another.
But Sevilla are also in very good form. They have won five of their last six in the league and secured a highly impressive 4-0 win away to Real Sociedad last time out. And despite their eventual elimination, the Copa del Rey tie gave Sevilla further reason for optimism.
They were perhaps a bit unfortunate to go down 3-0 in the first leg. Vicente Iborra and Vitolo both missed very good chances while there were arguably a few questionable refereeing decisions. In Thursday’s return they gave their all, created plenty of chances and at times looked capable of doing the impossible and reversing that deficit.
On Sunday, with a raucous Sanchez Pizjuan crowd fully behind them — and some likely added spice after the actions, justifiable or not, of Sergio Ramos on Thursday — Sevilla can at least be expected to give Madrid as good a game as they gave Barcelona in a pulsating 2-1 loss back in November. It then comes down to who can take their chances. And if it is Sevilla who can, victory and the unlikely title challenge it would bring about will be theirs.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.