FootballLa Liga

Lopetegui’s Sevilla emerge as surprise title contenders in La Liga

November 20, 2019

THE most open La Liga title race in years has thrown up seven different leaders of the table over the first three months of the season – and Sevilla looks the surprise package most likely of keeping pace with the stumbling big three.

The Primera Division returns from the international break with two points separating the top five clubs. Although current joint leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid do still have December 18’s Clasico at the Camp Nou as their game in hand, Sevilla have a more than decent chance of ending 2019 in top spot due to relatively straightforward upcoming fixture list.

It would be a big ask for Julen Lopetegui’s team to push on and really challenge over the second half of the season. Atletico Madrid in 2013/14 are the only team outside the Clasico duo to win the title in the last 15 years. But this year is perhaps different.

Barca coach Ernesto Valverde is more reliant than ever on moments of individual genius from Lionel Messi. Madrid’s mix of complacent superstars and unproven youngsters are still searching for consistency. Atletico are in transition – again – with an all new defence and serious lack of goalscoring threat.

This creates an opportunity for an unlikely team to come through. And Sevilla look best placed, with gravity inevitably catching up on newly promoted Granada, Real Sociedad’s exciting kids too inexperienced, and off-field issues as usual affecting everything at Valencia.

Julen Lopetegui’s new look side were top of the table after 10 points from their first four games, then hit a tricky spot including defeats to Madrid and Barca. Lopetegui kept calm and three wins and two draws in their last five matches have returned them to the race and there was a big outpouring of emotion after their 2-1 derbi win over city rivals Real Betis last time out.

“Julen is a coach who needs a success,” Monchi said accurately when he was appointed in July, and the Basque has been acting like a man who knows he has a lot to prove in his first big club job in Spain, following the abrupt ends to his last two jobs with the Spanish national team and Real Madrid.

Last summer’s squad movements were generally a success, with sporting director Ramon ‘Monchi’ Rodriguez returning to form after his own learning experience at Roma. 11 new players have featured over Sevilla’s first 13 La Liga games, including both scorers against Betis – Argentine winger Lucas Ocampos and Dutch center-forward Luuk de Jong. Other value for money arrivals have included ex-Manchester City holding midfielder Fernando, previously little known Brazilian centre-back Diego Carlos and on loan from Madrid left-back Sergio Reguilon.

Even as Lopetegui has chopped and changed with new players settling in and injuries hitting in defence particularly, team performances have been remarkably consistent. Over their 13 La Liga games so far they have been in front for 409 minutes (34.96%), drawing for 650 (55.56%) and only losing for 111 (9.49%). They were unlucky to lose a very tight game at home to Madrid, and should really have been 2-0 up at the Camp Nou before eventually losing 0-4.

Through recent years, Sevilla’s away record has been there achilles’ heel, but nobody has more than their 13 points from seven away games so far. This season’s UEL campaign is also going smoothly, with progress already secured after four games in a not very taxing group including Qarabag, Dudelange and APOEL.

All this has brought optimism back to the Sanchez Pizjuan, where last season was a shambles including Pablo Machin’s short time as coach and early exits in both the Europa League and Copa del Rey. Seeing the bright side might not always come naturally to Lopetegui, but he has looked a more relaxed character, even joking around with some players who have been in and out of the team lately including Nolito and Chicharito Hernandez during a recent paintball excursion.

Lopetegui’s only previous experience of coaching in a title race came at Porto, when his side were second for most of the season and finished three points behind winners Benfica. Sevilla’s current squad though does not lack title winning memories – with Jesus Navas, Fernando, De Jong, Chicharito and goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik all winning titles across England, Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

“We must be keep going  in all competitions,” said long-serving midfielder Ever Banega this week told Goal. “The teams who are usually up there winning titles, should know that Sevilla will be pressing them always. I hope we can win some trophy.”

An upcoming fixture list of Valladolid, Leganes, Osasuna, Villarreal and RCD Mallorca means Sevilla should stay right in contact with the top until the winter break, and Barca, Madrid and Atletico could then be distracted by January's Supercopa in Saudi Arabia.

The evidence so far also suggests that further shocks like Mallorca beating Madrid and Barca losing at Granada are likely. The blaugrana outfit won last season’s title with 87 points, the lowest winning total in a decade. This year even fewer could be needed to take the trophy.

None of this says that Sevilla will definitely stay the course – their only LaLiga title in history was in 1945/46, and the last time they seriously challenged was 2006/07. But something is going on this season, and Lopetegui and Monchi look determined to make the best of an unlikely opportunity.