La Liga Hangover: Do Barca, Real and Atleti Have a Title Challenger in Sevilla?

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Even the driving rain and the thousands of brollies couldn’t take the edge off them. Though bunkered down, huddled together amid the deluge, those inside the soaking wet Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium let go of a deep, heartfelt roar. It was the sort you get amid the euphoria of a winning strike, but this came for the final whistle instead, in a way it normally doesn’t, and that itself pointed to a recognition—this was big.

Sevilla, of course, know a thing or two about big victories and so does the Pizjuan. The Andalucians have won three straight Europa League finals and in the last 13 months have defeated Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus at home in their red cauldron.

Atletico Madrid, though, had consistently escaped them, not just recently but for a long time. But Sunday changed that, and it matters.

Sevilla’s 1-0 win thanks to Steven N’Zonzi’s second-half goal snapped a 13-game winless run against Atleti. Manager Diego Simeone had presided over 11 of those, and there had been some thrashings dished out by Cholo and Co. in that time: two 4-0s, a 3-0 and a 3-1.

The 3-0 came last season at the Pizjuan, toppling the fortress. The rematch at the Vicente Calderon Stadium then saw the men from the south opt for the most rugged, defensive lineup they had, scrapping their way to a 0-0 draw while conceding almost 70 per cent possession to a team well-versed in doing so themselves. It was a concession of inferiority.

Sunday couldn’t have been more different, however. In conditions that were more Sunderland than Seville, with manager Jorge Sampaoli dressed like a garden gnome for protection, the hosts sought the initiative that the former Chile boss had outlined on the day he was presented back in June.

"We’ll be an extremely attacking team," he said back then to the club’s official website (h/t Fox Sports). "That allows us to control and seek our objectives and not wait for them to find us."

Several months on, there’s something in that line. Sevilla’s style is bold and differs significantly from the conservative approach that crept in a little too much in the final year of Unai Emery’s tenure.

Through the early weeks of the season there have been some doubts, and Sevilla haven’t always convinced; late goals and some doses of luck masking flaws. But throughout, the commitment to the encompassing idea hasn’t wavered—put the ball on the floor, push men forward and attack.

Sunday suggested it’s now coming together. It also raised the question over whether Sevilla are in the title race.

Sevilla’s best display of the season. Complete, collective triumph. Solid defensively, and vibrant in attack. Amazing second half.

— David Cartlidge (@davidjaca) October 23, 2016

Against what might be the best team in Europe right now, Sampaoli’s men dictated terms. After a tight first half, the home side started the second in the blaze. Samir Nasri hit the post from the edge of the box with Jan Oblak beaten, and minutes later Vitolo drew a fine, close-range save from the Slovenian. Soon after they had their goal, a surging N’Zonzi bursting through Atleti’s lines with help from Luciano Vietto.

It was in midfield where it started. Since being condemned to what the Sun (always so fair in its assessments) called "fat camp" by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Nasri’s loan switch to Spain’s south has been flawless to date and on Sunday he continued his exemplary form.

Floating from side to side, probing forward, coming deep when needed, the Frenchman showed he’s becoming the central conductor Sevilla haven’t quite had. He and N’Zonzi, who was also excellent at the base of the midfield, had more of the ball than anyone else on the pitch, with Nasri almost doubling his opposite number in Koke for passes and touches.

There’s a partnership coming together here and that’s what is most encouraging. Though in the opening weeks Sevilla had grabbed attention, there had been a messiness to them and a lack of structure. Systematically, a 4-1-3-2 functioned more like a 2-1-5-2, leaving the formation to often look split in two and the midfield to be a thoroughfare for opposition attacks. It was almost kamikaze, but not now.

Nasri dropping deeper has given N’Zonzi a prominent figure to play with. The City man’s comfort on the ball has also given Sevilla an ability to control the flow of games more, swapping some of the freneticism for balance.

Samir Nasri attempted 158 passes for Sevilla in the #UCL on Tuesday night—more than anyone not called Xavi since 2005/06 👏
[📷 @OptaJose] pic.twitter.com/AZui4cvsQc

— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) October 19, 2016

Sevilla is all Nasri these days.
Very high amount of touches in such an advanced position.#passmap pic.twitter.com/ROA2WaBMqm

— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) October 23, 2016

Recent results have reinforced the sensations. After that 6-4 clash with Espanyol that reduced restraint to the sort of levels witnessed on Twitter’s Sunday afternoons, Sevilla have kept four clean sheets in their last seven games in all competitions and six in their last 11. Included in those have been three Champions League outings, one of them in Turin against Juventus, with whom they sit joint top in Group H.

These are facts that are becoming hard to ignore, feeling more than just early-season randomness.

The Andalucians had already possessed a clear philosophy prior to Sunday, but now there’s a clarity growing with regard to the execution of it. They sit behind only Barcelona in the league for possession this season and fourth for shots on target. Last weekend they also passed the psychological hurdle of that away record, beating Leganes, and at the Pizjuan they border on unbeatable.

A core group with a nice blend of ages is establishing itself, too, with Nasri, N’Zonzi, Vitolo, Vietto, Franco Vazquez, Mariano, Sergio Escudero and Nico Pareja being given continuity.

So are they in the title race? Simeone believes so.

"I see Sevilla, along with ourselves, in the teams who are trying to compete against Real Madrid and Barcelona," the Atletico boss had said ahead of Sunday’s clash, per ESPN FC.

He added: "They have many new players, a different style than before, but they are showing in their games how competitive they are. Their coach has a very clear idea, takes risks, presses forward for the ball, which makes them dangerous." He reiterated the message on Sunday evening.

Diego Simeone rues #Atletico missed chances at Sanchez Pizjuan and believes #Sevilla are title challengers https://t.co/KWJbhPFIt1 pic.twitter.com/GPDb4t08Pz

— footballespana (@footballespana_) October 24, 2016

For Simeone, saying so suits his narrative. Building others up and stressing the difficulty of his own’s side task—rejecting any notion of favouritism—stands at the core of his mantra. It’s likely he would have said it last week even if he didn’t fully believe it. But as he headed back to the capital on Sunday, he might have seen a parallel in Sevilla’s victory with one of his own.

It was back in September 2013 when a win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium declared Atleti’s arrival. Though they’d won the Copa del Rey final at the same venue at the end of the previous season, the 1-0 victory in the league snapped a 14-year winless run. Breaking a hex, it fortified belief and the sense that it was real now, that Atleti were in it.

Is this the same, then? It’s impossible to say so definitively but there are some similarities: the scoreline, the conviction, the breaking of a run against a key opponent and the feeling of something distinctive growing.

"The key for us is to build our own identity," Sampaoli said after the game. "We cannot play scared, so we must seek to dominate the game."

On Sunday, they weren’t scared at all. Confronted with what Sampaoli called "the best team in the world as of today," Sevilla did what they now do; put the ball on the floor, pushed men forward and attacked. They might just be in the title race because of it.

Not Forgotten Amid the Hangover

  • What to make of the big boys? This weekend, both of them were challenged, both of them responded and both of them found the late goals they needed, but that in itself left questions, the sensations not aligning with the facts. In hard-fought victories over Valencia and Athletic Club Bilbao, respectively, Barcelona and Real Madrid continued to show they have defensive concerns, issues managing games and a question or two relating to structure. As ever, there’s a lot to like, but neither are entirely convincing at present.
  • Don’t cross Quique Sanchez Flores. Or, more specifically, don’t do what Felipe Caicedo did in getting two yellow cards in 10 minutes as a late substitute when Espanyol’s comeback from the abyss was on:

Este es el momento que se marcha expulsado Felipe Caicedo y QSF le pega la bronca. #RCDE https://t.co/yKydE4bBOd

— RCDE Stats (Arnau) (@RcdeStats) October 22, 2016

  • And yet, Caicedo somehow didn’t stall the comeback. From 0-3 at half-time, Espanyol incredibly fought back to 3-3, Leo Baptistao grabbing the equaliser in the 91st minute and blowing the roof off the Estadi Cornella-El Prat. It’s been a very average start for the Catalans, but this could be more than just one point. It could be a turning point.
  • We might have to start talking about Villarreal in the same way as Sevilla: nine games, five wins, zero losses, only five goals conceded and just two points off top.
  • Because they were playing Villarreal, Las Palmas had to go and find an away kit that’s never needed otherwise. It was pretty awful. But you couldn’t say the same about this from Kevin-Prince Boateng and Tana. Volleyed finish from a back-heeled volleyed assist: Yes, yes, yes please.
  • Speaking of good goals, how about the pair from Real Betis on Friday? Even on a night when Gus Poyet will have pissed off every Betico in existence by benching leading striker Ruben Castro, fans will have loved Joaquin chipping Osasuna goalkeeper Nauzet from the edge of the box while falling over. They will have loved Felipe Gutierrez’s swerving rocket from a free-kick in the 91st minute even more. A 2-1 win is massive for Betis. And even more massive for Poyet, who’s safe. For now.
  • Another goal for Sandro Ramirez (and an assist, too). He now has as many in two months at Malaga as he got in two years at Barcelona.