Julen Lopetegui likely walked through the Camp Nou door with dread last Sunday. After all, this had been the scene of some of his greatest humiliations as a soccer coach. This was where his ill-fated, and desperately short, Real Madrid tenure effectively came to an end, going down 5-1 in the biggest Clásico defeat for eight years.
It’s also where, 12 months ago, Sevilla’s shortcomings as a side were brutally exposed. Barça put four goals past the Andalusians in a 4-0 win that had many questioning whether Lopetegui was the right man for the job at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Had Sevilla not ended a dismal run of form with victories in their next two matches, the 54-year-old may well have been sacked just a few months into a season for the second year running.
Lopetegui’s fortunes have changed since then, though, and Sevilla demonstrated this in their performance against Barcelona in their most recent match, when they were unfortunate not to come away with all three points. Instead, the Andalusians settled for one, drawing 1-1, but there was more than enough in their display to back up their standing as potential title challengers this season.
“Sevilla put the brakes on Barcelona,” read the headline on the front page of one of Spain’s daily sports newspapers the following morning, but in truth it had been the other way around. Barça were the more reactive of the two sides, with Sevilla claiming as much as 70% of the first half possession. They might now have claimed the victory, but this was a statement of intent.
There has been a lot of talk in Spain of Sevilla as potential title challengers. Lopetegui’s side have lost just two league games in 2020, and one of those was a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu to take on Zinedine Zidane’s eventual champions back in January. There was also a defeat away to Celta Vigo in early February, but since then Sevilla have been unbeatable.
Factor in the Europa League triumph which saw Lopetegui lead his side past Roma, Manchester United and Inter on the way to winning the competition for a sixth time in 15 years, and the European Super Cup game in which Sevilla took Bayern Munich all the way to extra time, and their candidacy as Spain’s best soccer team at this moment in time appears rather strong.
The opportunity is there for an outsider to crash the party at the top of the Spanish game this season, with Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and even Real Madrid all going through something of a generational transition. Sevilla, on the other hand, are a side near the peak of their powers. There is a good balance, in terms of age, within their squad.
There is also a good ideological and tactical balance within their squad. Lopetegui has forged a high-energy, modern side from a group of players willing to work and fight for him. The 54-year-old has very quickly won hearts and minds at Sevilla and that is evident in the intensity of the performances his team.
Expectations have been raised at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. “I’m a bit disappointed,” centre back Jules Kounde admitted after Sunday’s draw at the Camp Nou. “We produced a great performance… we maybe even deserved to win,” club president Pepe Castro insisted. Both views were justifiable given the level of Sevilla’s play.
Ever Banega and Sergio Reguilon left the club over the summer, but in Ivan Rakitic and Marcos Acuña Sevilla found near like-for-like replacements. These sort of shrewd transfers are the calling card of Monchi, the club’s legendary sporting director credited with turning Sevilla into a European force over the last decade or so.
Monchi has yet to find a true replacement for Wissam Ben Yedder, though. The French striker scored 70 goals in 148 appearances for Sevilla, but departed the club in the summer of 2019. The €40 million transfer fee paid by Monaco for Ben Yedder made him a record sale for Sevilla, but that money has helped source a successor.
Luuk de Jong found form in the latter stages of last season’s Europa League, also netting the opener against Barcelona on Sunday, but the Dutchman has generally failed to replace the goals that left Sevilla with Ben Yedder, scoring just 10 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions last season. Just six of those goals came in La Liga.
Nonetheless, Sevilla are well-placed to take advantage of the vulnerability of La Liga’s ‘Big Three’ this season. If Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid hit top form on a consistent basis, Lopetegui’s side will find it difficult to keep pace. Anything less than that, though, and they could achieve tangible proof of their status as Spain’s best.
Sevilla's first match after the international break will be against Granada. Every Sevilla match can be streamed live on fuboTV.
vs Granada – Saturday, Oct 17, 7:00am
vs Chelsea – Tuesday, Oct 20, 3:00pm – Champions League
vs Eibar – Saturday, Oct 24, 12:30pm
vs Rennes – Wednesday, Oct 28, 4:00pm – Champions League