Camp Nou, Barcelona – For two minutes, there was pure ecstasy. A shock no doubt, against the run of play of course but nevertheless there were a handful of Girona fans positioned high up in the gods who had believed their team could do it. This is a team that are in unchartered territory – this being their first match at Barcelona’s historic ground even though they themselves are only based 100km further up the east coast. Three minutes into their first competitive match at Camp Nou and they were ahead… somehow. But 80 minutes or so later and they had conceded six and succumbed to a fine attacking display by la Blaugrana. Back to reality with a bang, you might say, but this is a team who are still flying high.
Girona became the last Catalan province to produce a La Liga team when they were promoted last season. Nine consecutive seasons in Segunda – of which they finished in the top four on four occasions – has enabled the Catalans to build a strong squad and also acquire an intelligent and highly thought of young manager in Pablo Machin. Despite their links with Pere Guardiola – Pep’s brother – and more recently Manchester City themselves, Girona have certainly remained independent. Out of the numerous loanees from Manchester, only Pablo Maffeo is a starter. Instead, it has been a 31-year old Uruguayan striker – and previous Middleborough player – who has stolen the headlines. Cristhian Stuani only joined Girona in the summer but made an immediate impression by scoring a double on his first La Liga start against Atletico Madrid. Since then he hasn’t really stopped – he is currently joint fifth in the La Liga goalscoring charts with 13 this season.
The mix of youth and experience has allowed Girona to flourish in their debut season. Although Machin consistently says that his side only takes one game at a time, the possibility of being in Europe next season is not all that impossible. Ninth in the table currently and a match against fellow Europe-chasers Celta Vigo in midweek, the Catalans have an unbelievable yet well deserved crack at a Europa League place. This season has seen the rise of the so-called smaller clubs; Eibar, Getafe and Leganes along with Girona are all in content for Europe. They all have to be practical and make the most of their resources. Their rises are not ones of coincidence.
Unlike other cities and towns around Spain, everyone in Girona supports Girona. There are no second teams here. There won’t be any Real Madrid shirts or Barcelona scarfs on show in the city centre. Only red and white stripes are the fashion here. Despite that, as the fans made the short journey down the coast to see their players take to the pitch in a stadium that had never hosted them before, there was a sense of excitement that few had experienced before. A dream to play in their neighbour’s iconic home for the first time, and for the opening five minutes, it was even better. A mix-up between Samuel Umtiti and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen – who have both been consistent performers this season – allowed Cristian Portu to pounce and score from an acute angle via the post.
But the fantasy only lasted two minutes for the gironistes – Barcelona responded as Leo Messi slid in Luis Suarez who fired underneath Yassine Bounou from the left of the penalty area. Just short of the half-hour mark, Suarez repaid the favour as he set up Messi to cut inside Jonas Ramalho and beat Bounou with a hard left-footed strike to complete the turnaround. Both Messi and Suarez were in fine form – “he makes things appear easy, but they aren’t,” said Ernesto Valverde of Messi. The Argentine doubled his tally for the night with a cheeky free-kick underneath the Girona wall six minutes later and he was involved once more in Barcelona’s fourth, playing in Philippe Coutinho who unselfishly crossed for Suarez to tap in his second of the night.
The second-half was far less eventful but even so, it was not an easy watch for the travelling Girona fans. It took until the 66th minute for la Blaugrana to add to their already hefty lead – Coutinho produced a moment of magic, cutting in from the left to bend a sensational trademark strike in off the post from 25 yards out. On his best performance for Barcelona yet, Valverde highlighted the impact of his new signing post-match. Playing alongside Ousmane Dembele, the home supporters possibly got a glimpse of the future of the Barcelona midfield.
Suarez completed the scoring – and his hatrick – with 15 minutes left to play when he tapped-in a cross from Dembele. Real Sociedad’s all-time Spanish record unbeaten run of 38 games between April 1979 and May 1980 is certainly within Barcelona’s sight. The performance was pleasing for Valverde who added that “we enter into the decisive phase of the championship where points count for a lot, and we want to keep our rivals at a distance.” The only dampener for the hosts were the injuries suffered by Gerard Pique and Nelson Samedo who were both forced off. Girona, on the other hand, left humbled but still proud of their achievements. They are still living the dream.
Los Otros Puntos
- Atletico Madrid scored five goals away from home for the third time this season, perhaps more surprisingly it was against their challengers for a top four place in Sevilla. Diego Simeone was still not wholly satisfied as his side conceded two goals in the final five minutes – this was the first time that los rojiblancos have conceded two goals in the league since the opening matchday away at Girona. On Sunday evening, Diego Costa gave Atletico the lead in the 29th minute as he pounced on a poor back pass in the Sevilla defence to slam the ball past Sergio Rico. Antoine Griezmann made it 2-0 with a stunning finish three minutes before half-time, picking up a headed clearance on the edge of the penalty area and curling his shot into the top left-hand corner. Cholo’s men wrapped the victory up five minutes after the break with both goalscorers involved again; Costa was brought down by Rico and Griezmann converted the penalty. Yet more Sevilla defensive vulnerability gifted Atletico a fourth when Griezmann intercepted a poor Gabriel Mercado’s passback and back-heeled the ball for Koke to score. With nine minutes left to play, Griezmann completed his hatrick after being set up by Saul Niguez. Sevilla’s both goals came in the final five minutes when Atletico slightly lost concentration – Pablo Sarabia and Nolito scored them – and there was even time for a Sevilla penalty shout but the referee waved play on.
- Cristiano Ronaldo…check, Gareth Bale…check, and Karim Benzema…check – for the first time since April 2016 the BBC all scored in a match for Real Madrid. But had it not been for Ronaldo’s unselfish gesture of shunning another Real Madrid hatrick and allowing Benzema to take a penalty-kick in the 89th minute, then the run would have continued. Alaves did create chances of their own but despite Real’s first goal not coming until just before half-time, it was always the hosts’ to lose.
- Sergio Asenjo saved two penalties – one from Angel Rodriguez and another from Jorge Molina – to ensure that Enes Unal’s goal for Villarreal was the only one in the match against Getafe.
- Paco Jemez’s shoes were well polished but his teams’ performance was not. 0-0 was the scoreline between Leganes and Las Palmas but it was 4-5 in the card count.
- Score a goal, have a penalty saved, and get sent off … all in a days work for Malaga’s Youssef En-Nesyri.
- Santi Mina’s double for Valencia against Real Sociedad rescued a third straight victory for Los Che.
Deportivo 0–0 Espanyol
Celta Vigo 2–0 Eibar
Real Madrid 4–0 Alaves
Leganes 0–0 Las Palmas
Barcelona 6–1 Girona
Villarreal 1–0 Getafe
Athletic Bilbao 2–1 Malaga
Valencia 2–1 Real Sociedad
Sevilla 2–5 Atletico Madrid
Levante – Real Betis to be played on Monday
El Jugador de la Semana: Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
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