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  • Writer's pictureAlan Feehely

Sevilla’s Journey To The Elite Via Barcelona

Viral clips can be an aberration, a moment that kicks the wave. Sevilla’s widely-shared goal against Valencia in the Copa del Rey, a complex and cohesive multi-pass move, wasn’t. It epitomised Sevilla, a considered and intelligent passage of play produced through an uncompromising atmosphere of excellence behind the scenes. The work they do as a club in recruiting intelligently, coaching meticulously and communicating directly is what results in ethereal moments of beauty like that goal.

Not to say it was a typical Sevilla goal. In fact, there is no typical Sevilla goal because they aren’t a club with an identity in the way that’s become so fashionable. The modern game has become obsessed with notions of style and philosophy, but at the end of the day a football match is a football match. Sevilla’s identity, if you could call it that, lies in frugality, strategy and building competitive teams, with Monchi at the heart of it. This juxtaposes with the philosophy of another Spanish club, and for that reason the matches to have taken place between the two this season are of interest to this piece.

Sevilla have played Barcelona twice this campaign, the first back on 4th October. Sevilla travelled north intent on underlining their title credentials and proving they could build on the previous season’s success, when they qualified for the Champions League and won the Europa League. Barcelona were endeavouring to rally from the previous season’s disappointment, when they ended the campaign trophyless after the infamous 8-2 demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Ronald Koeman was fresh in the job and his team had shown green shoots of improvement.

Julen Lopetegui, his counterpart at Sevilla, chose a 4-3-3 shape. Bono started in goal behind the centre back pairing of Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé. Jesús Navas and Marcos Acuña were the full backs, with Fernando sitting as the sole pivot, sometimes dropping between Carlos and Koundé and freeing Navas and Acuña so the shape became 3-5-2 in possession. Beside him in midfield was Joan Jordán and Ivan Rakitić. Luuk de Jong led the line, flanked by Lucas Ocampos and Suso.

The most remarkable thing about the game was its lack of remarkability. Both sides touched gloves and went at it, neither subservient to the other, both trading blows. Sevilla took the lead in the eighth minute through de Jong before Philippe Coutinho drew Barcelona level two minutes later, and the clash finished 1-1. It was a high-quality affair, both sides precise in their passing while willing and able to take the game to the other. Neither were satisfied with a point, but the sentiment following the final whistle was that Sevilla had arrived. They looked Barcelona dead in the eye and went toe-to-toe, no longer content with being the best-of-the-rest. They wanted their seat at the grown-ups’ table.

The second clash this campaign took place four months later, on 10th February. This time it took place in Andalusia, and the context was different. Both sides were locking horns in the first leg of the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, with the winner of the tie guaranteed to go into the final as favourite while Athletic Club and Levante contested the other semi-final.

That’s not to say neither of those sides were a threat. They were, and Barcelona knew that all too well. They had lost to Athletic in the final of the Supercopa de España just a month before, and weren’t living with their usual confidence given they’d finished as runners-up in their Champions League group and were third in LaLiga, a point and a place ahead of Sevilla. The Andalusians went into the game in a different boat. They hadn’t pushed on from the point they earned at Camp Nou the previous October and had started the season inconsistently while Real Sociedad and Villarreal tasted high society. Both had seen their form decline, however, while Sevilla had built slowly and were beginning to look best-placed to retain their top four place. They’re also scheduled to play Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 of the Champions League, while Barcelona face an ominous duel with Paris Saint-Germain.

Lopetegui started Bono once again, but opted for an altered 4-2-3-1 shape. Aleix Vidal replaced the injured Navas while Sergio Escudero replaced the injured Acuña. Diego Carlos and Koundé retained their place, but Jordán slotted in beside Fernando in a double-pivot to tighten the space available to Barcelona. Rakitić situated himself just in front of them, with the in-form Youssef En-Nesyri leading the line. New signing Papu Gómez and Suso completed the starting eleven, with Ocampos out injured.

Sevilla struck first and second blood, winning the game 2-0. Koundé scored a stunning individual effort before Rakitić put the final nail in the coffin of his former employers with a well-taken goal five minutes from time. Barcelona played well, testing Bono on several occasions through Lionel Messi most frequently, but the great man couldn’t turn the key and open the door. Sevilla took their chances when they arose, that was the difference.

Koundé and Jordán were outstanding. Full of youthful zeal and healthy arrogance, the former tore through the Barcelona rear-guard, making compatriot Samuel Umtiti look like a statue before scoring his goal. He played with defensive responsibility and intelligence, never afraid to step up and cut out nascent attacks. Jordán was much the same, operating with simplicity and tenacity, snapping at the heels of opponents like a terrier while exhibiting an underrated technical ability. Both played with hunger and disrespect.

Barcelona returned to Catalonia empty-handed, without even an away goal. They’ll face Sevilla again in LaLiga and play PSG before the second leg, so the pressure is on for Koeman heading into the final stretch of the season. Sevilla, by contrast, are light. Both clubs are at opposite ends of progress. Sevilla live for the joy of exploration and discovery, pushing the envelope as far as they can. Barcelona are burdened by their illustrious past, and no matter what they achieve this season, they will fail to live up to their recent history. Returning to where they should be will take several years of institutional restructuring.

Battles between the two clubs are intriguing as they’re a clash of cultures. Seville is a hot-blooded city, but the club’s sporting model is devoted to logic and intelligence. Catalonia is regarded as the seat of reason and common sense, but Barcelona are a chaotic mess off the pitch in their sporting direction and lack of fiscal responsibility.

Every man who pulls on a Barcelona shirt is faced with two obligations. One is to the history of the colours and the legends that have worn them before him. The other is to Messi, the living legend with sky-high standards and a look that can kill. Many highly-talented players have been unable to survive the demands of both, and have melted beneath the intense glare of the Camp Nou floodlights.

Sevilla don’t have that. They’re seeking to build history rather than live up to it, playing football matches instead of expressions of culture. Lopetegui is a pragmatic coach who tailors games to counter the opposition rather than submit them to his philosophical vision. Their squad is intelligently compiled, a potent combination of steel and silk, experience and youth. Koundé has Navas, Jordán has Rakitić. Proven winners help hungry youngsters, team cohesion superseding fantasy football.

Barcelona will be back and it will be glorious when they are. Nobody can touch them when they’re on song. But it’s going to be a long, difficult process, something that’s going to get worse before it gets better. Sevilla have a window of opportunity this season to take the club to the next level and make the big three a big four. If they can win the Copa and go deep in the Champions League, they could leave the Europa League behind for good and enter the true elite. They have the squad, the coach and the structure to do it.

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