Less than three weeks ago, everything was rosy in Sevilla’s garden. With an hour played in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 meeting with Leicester, the Spanish side – who were mounting a strong challenge for their domestic league title – were 2-0 up and cruising, looking well capable of adding more goals and effectively sealing their place in the last eight.
But then, completely against the run of play, Leicester pulled a goal back through Jamie Vardy, and since then the outlook for Sevilla’s season has completely changed.
True, they did manage to win their next two league games, overcoming local rivals Real Betis and Athletic Bilbao with hard-earned single-goal victories, but neither performance was convincing and they were slightly fortunate to come away with six points.
And in their last two outings, Jorge Sampaoli’s men have dropped four points by succumbing to tame 1-1 draws against Alaves and Leganes, with Saturday’s home tie against the latter widely regarded as their worst performance of the season and concluding with the team being whistled off the pitch. So now, rather than wondering how easily they’ll beat Leicester, the big question on the European stage is whether they will prevail at all.
And in La Liga, it’s increasingly not a matter of whether Sevilla will overhaul Real Madrid and Barcelona in the title race, but whether they can hold off Atletico Madrid to stay in third place.
Sevilla’s season, which for so long has offered so much promise, is now at a crossroads and the coming days will be crucial.
On Sunday, they travel to the Vicente Calderon to face Atletico, knowing that by the end of the day the gap between the teams could be as many as eight points or as few as two. Before then, of course, comes tonight’s meeting with Leicester for the culmination of a tie which appeared a foregone conclusion for the majority of the first leg, with Sevilla so superior it didn’t even look like Joaquin Correa’s first half penalty miss would really matter.
Now though, that save by Kasper Schmeichel could prove to be crucial, and Leicester fans will look at Sevilla’s recent form as a cause for optimism. They shouldn’t be too hasty, however, because there have been extenuating circumstances in Sevilla’s last two performances – as poor as they were – and it’s unlikely they are ready to let their season fizzle out.
At Alaves, for starters, they were playing against a team whose capabilities at home are highly underrated, with the Basque team only beaten in their own stadium by Real Madrid, Barcelona and Espanyol so far this season.
And on Saturday against Leganes, Sampaoli picked a virtual reserve side with key players including Samir Nasri, Vicente Iborra, Steven N’Zonzi and Vitolo all left out of the starting line-up.
Rather than a sign of decline, Sevilla’s recent results are more likely to be an indication that they have relaxed their focus and briefly taken their eye off the ball. When that happens, because they rely so heavily on intensity and physical effort, they are unlikely to be successful. There is also a suspicion that Sampaoli himself may have been distracted by the speculation linking him with the managerial position at Barcelona.
But on Tuesday night, you can be assured that Sampaoli and Sevilla will be fired up and ready. This is what they’ve been saving themselves for, and Leicester won’t get anything without a fight.