"We have to win, yes or yes" – failure not an option for Sevilla
Just past the gym, five inflatable footballers lean lazily against the wall at one end of a row of red and white portacabins with bars on the windows. A squad’s worth of metallic players in blue and red are stacked up a little further along a sandy track that fills with days’ worth of rain. Behind the building, at the other end from the laundry room, a couple of shopping trolleys stand empty; in front of it, a lawnmower drives round a perfect pitch. That, too, is empty now. Workmen carry on what they’re doing. A bag of Champions League balls has been locked up with a load of boxes behind red bars. And the whole place smells of paella.
It’s tasty, too.
In another of the prefabricated cabins at the Ramon Cisneros Palacios training ground, the squad have gathered for lunch after training along with staff, directors and the club’s president Jose Castro. There is enough rice for a small army and there’s a reason they are there, too: a show of support and togetherness heading into hugely important days for Sevilla Futbol Club.
On Tuesday night, they travel to Old Trafford. After the first leg at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan finished 0-0 thanks largely to David De Gea, Sevilla know they are not favourites but they travel in hope that they can reach the quarterfinal of the European Cup for the first time in 60 years. Three times in nine years they have been stopped here — by Fenerbache, CSKA Moscow and Leicester City — and now they have a fourth chance to return to where they have been just once, way back in 1958 when they were defeated by Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid. Take this step and it would be historic, even at a club living its best ever decade.
But that’s not the reason that these next few days are so significant… or not the only reason, anyway. There is opportunity but there is obligation too. The Champions League balls that sit behind bars haven’t been used in training and won’t be coming out until Sunday morning. First, there is Saturday afternoon’s league game against Valencia at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan — and it is, midfielder Mudo Vazquez says, a “final.”
There’s Old Trafford sure, and the excitement is unavoidable, the sense of history, but the focus, for now, is more immediate. “A paella before ‘eating’ Valencia” said one newspaper, a little cheesily.
Not that this column is suggesting putting cheese in a paella, of course — this isn’t Jamie Oliver’s cookbook — although one journalist in Valencia, where the dish is traditionally from, did call Sevilla’s version a “pseudo-paella” the next day.
“Do you hope they choke on it?” he asked Marcelino. “I hope they enjoyed it,” the Valencia manager replied. “Do you like paella?” he was asked. “Love it,” said Marcelino. “Valencian paella more than Sevillian paella.”
Over the next five days, Sevilla’s future in this year’s Champions League is at stake and so is their future in next year’s Champions League. It is tempting to suggest that in fact, so is their future, full stop. Most teams heading to Old Trafford on a Tuesday night would make changes to their team a few days before but Sevilla really can’t afford to — and afford is the word.
On Saturday, Valencia come to Seville. Currently in fourth place, they have an eight-point lead over Sevilla in fifth, plus the head-to-head advantage secured in a 4-0 win when they met earlier in the season. After three consecutive seasons in the Champions League, and with the win-the-Europa-League route not open to them this time, they face not making it.
Lose and Sevilla would be 11 points behind with only 10 games left. Even a draw would make their task an almost impossible one. They would effectively need to win three games more than Valencia between now and May. “We have to win, si o si,” Vazquez told Diario Sevilla, huddled in one corner of a packed press room as the waft of paella came through the door. Si o si: yes or yes. No other option is any good to them.
The club certainly think so. The knock-on impact of not making it would be hugely significant: for the first time, Sevilla’s income crept over €200 million this season; without the Champions League, that would be impossible to maintain.
Sales would almost certainly follow and while Sevilla became that rare club to make a virtue of departures, an act no longer seen as so traumatic, this feels like it could be different. Monchi is no longer the sporting director, for a start. They have already held onto some — Stephen N’Zonzi admitted that it would have been “nice” to go to PSG, for example — but the summer would be another matter. It’s one thing have a certain liberty to choose who to sell and when, accepting offers that, to use their words, were “out of the market.” It’s another to be forced to.
All of which leads back to one thing and one thing only: win. Under Vincenzo Montella, Sevilla have shifted. What they have not shifted is the starting XI: the Italian coach has stuck with the same players almost every game even as concerns have grown about fatigue. Although he has Jesus Navas injured — there is a hope he may, just, make it to Manchester — he’s unlikely to make many other changes on Saturday. It is too important for that.
There have been some painful defeats — in 2018 alone, Sevilla have conceded five against Atletico, Betis and Eibar — but bit by bit, Montella’s approach has worked. They have reached the Copa del Rey final, knocking out Atletico on their way, and have won four of their last five in the league. They really should have beaten Man United too; Navas insisted that they must play the second leg with the same “intensity.” He said: “We played well, we created more chances, we kept going and we have to do the same again.”
“We have less possession now, but we’re more ‘vertical,'” says defender Clement Lenglet. Eduardo Berizzo wanted Sevilla to go man-to-man but it never quite convinced entirely. Now, after his sacking just before Christmas, they place more stress on rob-and-run.
There are some parallels with Valencia, although Marcelino’s team do it better. Without European competition, their record is significantly stronger than Sevilla’s — they’ve scored 16 goals more and conceded 10 fewer — and to start with they looked like title challengers. But it didn’t last. Much as happened to Sevilla last season, you might remember.
Valencia reached December unbeaten but defeat against Getafe began a run of three losses in four, which then became six in nine. Even with nine games fewer than Sevilla and no European competition to fill up their midweeks, there’s been a suggestion of fatigue at Mestalla. But recovering now, they have won four in five in the league.
So have Sevilla, and they have to make it six. Manchester can wait; the priority is the Pizjuan.
“We know that to be in with a chance we have to win. We have to fight for every ball as if it was the last,” said Vazquez. “We want to be in the Champions League.” They want to be there next Thursday and they want to be there next season, too.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.