On a symbolic level, there could have been no more appropriate scorer of Sevilla’s dramatic winner against Real Madrid on Sunday than league debutant Stevan Jovetic.
The Montenegro international is a very good player, albeit maybe not quite world-class, who arrived with something to prove after being discarded by Manchester City and struggling to make an impact at
He was snapped up by Sevilla’s sporting director, Monchi, who has made a specialty out of finding players in similar situations, and then thrust into the action by manager Jorge Sampaoli, whose decision to introduce Jovetic in place of Franco Vazquez paid off in spades when he scored the winner.
And there, in a nutshell, is the story of Sevilla’s success this season: talented, hungry and cut-price players spotted by Monchi and utilised to great effect by Sampaoli. The equation has added up to a remarkable season, with the Andalusian club through to the last 16 of the Champions League, where they will play Leicester, as well as mounting a serious challenge in La Liga.
Many Barcelona fans who celebrated Jovetic’s winner appeared to miss this fact, but that goal actually sent the Catalan team down a place in the standings, with Sevilla leapfrogging them into second, just one point behind Real (who have a game in hand). And the big question in Spain now is whether Monchi and Sampaoli’s men will be able to maintain that challenge as winter turns into spring.
There has been, of course, a recent precedent for an outsider enjoying glory in Spain with Atletico Madrid breaking Real and Barca’s duopoly by winning the title in 2014, as well as going close in the last two seasons.
And now Sevilla are threatening to turn a supposed ‘two-team league’ into a four-horse race thanks to the impressive improvement under Sampaoli, who has rapidly become the world’s hottest coaching talent since replacing PSG-bound Unai Emery in the summer.
In addition to the manager, pre-season saw a major turnaround in playing staff at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, with last year’s stars Kevin Gameiro, Ever Banega and Grzegorz Krychowiak departing. But Monchi worked his magic once again, with Samir Nasri, Pablo Sarabia, Wissam Ben Yedder and Vazquez catching the eye since joining Sevilla this season.
There have also been outstanding contributions from existing players like all-action winger Vitolo, powerhouse midfielder Steven N’Zonzi and rising young goalkeeper Sergio Rico.
The key to it all has been Sampaoli’s ability to quickly gel together his assembled talents into an effective unit, and the Argentine has done so in an exciting manner with a dazzling array of attack-minded formations and tactical approaches. From one game to the next it is never easy to guess who Sampaoli will select, or whether they will line up in a three-man defence or a flat-back four.
With his emphasis on fast-paced passing, high pressing and rapid transitions, Sampaoli is every inch the modern manager and the influence of Marcelo Bielsa upon his thinking is easy to see.
In the coming months we’ll discover exactly how far he can take Sevilla – and it will be fun to find out.
Each week, Sport360 brings you the best five players from La Liga, as chosen by you the supporters through our ValoraFutbol fan ratings tool.
YOU have direct influence on who appears in each Top Five, so be sure to rate each weekend.
What do you make of this week’s ratings?
LUIS SUAREZ (BARCELONA) – 7.7
Luis Suarez has been a goal-scoring machine ever since his arrival at Barcelona, and against a not-so-strong Las Palmas team you would fancy him to score a few.
And that is exactly what the Uruguayan did. A 14th minute goal from Andre Gomes’ ball, hit on first touch by Suarez gave Barca the lead. And after being offered too much space and time on the ball, Suarez again made Palmas pay the price with his second goal.
Barca’s third goal too might have been scored by Arda Turan but it was Suarez’s counter-attacking run and a shot that rebounded off the keeper, that was instrumental.
LIONEL MESSI (BARCELONA) – 7.7
The Argentine genius played a vital part in Barcelona’s 5-0 victory at home.
Messi made some terrific dribbles, runs into the box and sublime, at times key, passes in the final third.
There was no need for a last-gasp free-kick and Messi also missed a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but he did score a tap-in and looks in good touch for the remainder of the season.
NANI (VALENCIA) – 7.6
Valencia finally ended their winless streak after winning 2-1 against Espanyol, and it was a decent performance from Nani who threatened the Espanyol defense throughout.
Nani provided the assist to Martin Montoya for the first goal of the game and an in-form Nani might help Valencia to get their La Liga campaign back on track.
ALEIX VIDAL (BARCELONA) – 7.6
The Barcelona full-back has not been first choice under Luis Enrique, but after a stellar game against Palmas, it looks as though he might now get more first-team appearances.
After the game, Enrique said of Vidal: “His performance contradicted the Coach because he had an excellent match. Physically he’s a unit, he has great natural fitness and trains very well. I was very happy with his performance.”
Vidal played a part in Barca’s first goal and also scored their fifth.
ANDRE GOMES (BARCELONA) – 7.4
The midfielder played a vital role in taking control of things in the midfield.
He made the all-important run and provided an assist to Suarez for the first goal and Gomes will take plenty of confidence from the game against Las Palmas.
He was both physical and creative, a sign of positive things for Enrique and Barcelona in the future.
Sergio scores for Seville
The Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, Seville. It’s the 85th minute, Real Madrid are leading 1-0 through a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty and it’s all looking tickety-boo for the league leaders. Pablo Sarabia swings over a free-kick from the right and Sergio Ramos, the specialist in last-gasp goals, Seville born and bred, rises as magnificently as ever and heads the ball into the net – except it’s his own net. Six minutes later, under intense pressure and the rising hollers of a chest-beating stadium, the substitute Stevan Jovetic, for the second time in four days, finds the net past Keylor Navas’ desperately outstretched arm, and the place goes wild. Ramos looks for a spade with which to dig a hole, and the 40-game run is over.
It was always going to be an interesting week, and the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville has been like one of those whistling kettles that never stops – a focus of footballing mayhem over four days that has culminated in the end of Real Madrid’s undefeated stretch and a sudden opening up of the title race. Sevilla’s dramatic injury-time 2-1 win late on Sunday night puts the Andaluz club one point behind the leaders, and despite the game in hand that Madrid still possess, the probability of a more interesting second half to the season is definitely in view.
Last Thursday, the two teams met in the same stadium to contest the second leg of the King’s Cup last 16. Real Madrid were 3-0 up from the first leg but needed a result to break Barcelona’s historic 39-game run. Leaving Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric out of the line-up, coach Zinedine Zidane was presumably preserving the Praetorian Guard for the following league game, and Sevilla themselves left out Samir Nasri, Vitolo, Steven N’Zonzi and Mariano. However, the game was far more eventful than perhaps expected, and at one point Real Madrid were on the ropes, 3-1 down with 13 minutes left and the sudden possibility of losing both the record and being dumped out of the cup. Then came the counterpoint to Sunday evening’s events when Sergio Ramos brought Madrid back into the frame with a Panenka-style penalty, scored in front of the north stand where the ‘Biris Norte’ ultras tend to gather. Ramos, who has been subjected to insults from the group ever since he left the club over a decade ago, held up his hands to his ears in a response that has had the football media buzzing ever since, the ‘ultras’ busy perfecting their grammar on Twitter and Ramos very much in the spotlight. Of course, Karim Benzema equalised in the final minute to ensure the record – an extraordinary ending to a spark-filled encounter, but even the most outrageous script-writer could hardly have imagined the events to come on Sunday night.
Ramos, like his colleague in the Spanish national side Gerard Piqué, has pursued a behavioural path that has led him frequently into the shadier spots of the limelight. Both have been involved in rather too many extramural incidents, and both have had cause to regret some of their more rash statements on social media. Whereas Piqué has earned the ire of practically the entire country minus Catalunya, with his political stance seemingly at odds with his (former) enthusiasm to play in the Spanish shirt, Ramos’ unpopularity has been more localised, with a certain section of the Sevilla fans (the Biris Norte) still unable to accept his move to Madrid. Quite why they insist on hounding Ramos – who seems a decent enough chap in the end – is a question only they could answer, and it probably lies in the complex social politics of Seville, a beautiful city forever split down Betis-Sevilla lines. Neither club takes too well to its local heroes leaving, and because Ramos’ growth and development as a player has largely taken place at the Bernabéu, the Biris ultras have never forgiven him –dismissing his frequent claims that he is still one of them, still a home boy at heart.
Ramos explained himself to the press after Thursday’s game, claiming that whilst Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic are treated like ‘gods’ when they return, for some reason he is not accorded the same sympathies. Defending his seemingly provocative action after the 3-2 goal as his fair turn (after 10 years of non-stop abuse from that sector), the incidents sparked anew the debate in Spain over whether supporters should be allowed to verbally abuse so freely, a right some claim because of the fees they have paid. However, this ‘right’ was legally annulled in 2014 by an edict from the wonderfully named ‘Comisión Permanente de la Comisión Estatal contra la Violencia, el Racismo, la Xenofobia y la Intolerancia en el Deporte’, which is far too long to translate, but you get the point. The first fans to fall foul of the legislation were those of Celta, for proffering their traditional insults to the followers of Deportivo in 2014, their Galician rivals. And whilst the authorities at Sevilla claimed righteous indignation at Ramos the day after the game, it is surely their responsibility to rein in the verbal habits of the ‘Biris’. Supporters are easily identifiable these days, and the photo of the ultras sticking a finger in Ramos’ direction after the goal leaves no doubt as to their identities.
1 - Sergio Ramos has scored his first own-goal in La Liga. Sevilla. pic.twitter.com/nmqsHzUqud— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 15, 2017
The ‘Biris’ section has been closed before, after insults fired Betis’ way in 2015, but the obvious problem is one of defining exactly what constitutes terrace humour and tradition, and what constitutes a punishable insult. When people who have little sympathy for football see this kind of behaviour, it leaves them aghast and scratching their heads. For those who love and follow the game however, it’s often just a part of the mix. Where do you draw the line? Well obviously at racism, sexism and xenophobia, but beyond that it gets a bit trickier. The difference between verbal violence and verbal humour is often a fuzzy one in sports arenas, and the traditional cat-calling of referees is a fortnightly ritual which probably helps to preserve the state of the nation.
In short, we’d like football events to keep their humour and their traditional, if often illogical, dislike of certain teams – because we don’t want the game to descend into some sort of neutered anodyne peace rally. Banning supporters and fining clubs does not help to develop a sense of respect for players and opponents – it just makes people more resentful. There does need to be a check on the culture of violence, where the verbal leads to the physical, but leagues in general and clubs in particular can deal with this in campaigns and education. Many have done so in Europe, although only a handful of clubs in Spain have been active on this front. Sevilla, as the opposite example, have had ten years to stop the insults flying Ramos’ way. Is it suddenly Ramos’ fault for bringing the country’s attention to it through ‘provocation’? I think not.
Meanwhile, La Liga reaches its half-way point next weekend, with Real Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona now all candidates to be the ‘Campeon de Invierno’ (Winter Champion), a press-invented prize, but one which Real Madrid were minutes away from ensuring on Sunday night. Now Sevilla can rightly claim that they are serious candidates for the title, although there’s a long way to go. Their refusal to give up, and their impressive first-half performance were reasonable witnesses to their credentials. Atlético are creeping up too. Sevilla are now the only one of the top four who can rest this week, as the quarter-final first legs of the King’s Cup are played. It’s all getting a bit hectic. Barcelona will wish they hadn’t been drawn to play in their nightmare stadium Anoeta, but at least I can be there on Thursday!