Montilivi, Girona – There was a “European meeting” on Friday evening according to AS, and given the result on the night, there could well be many more to come for Real Betis. To have suggested at the start of the season that Real Betis would be in a Europa League place – above Villarreal and Sevilla – with six matches left, would have been rather far-fetched. To have thought that Girona – newly promoted Girona – would be eight points behind them and only two places below the European threshold would have been ridiculous. However, that is exactly the way it is.
“Now we feel we have an obligation to enter Europe,” Betis manager Quique Setien told reporters prior to Friday’s crunch game. “We are in a strong position with not long left in the season so clearly there is a real possibility we could make it,” he added. Setien only joined los beticos in the summer after a successful time with Las Palmas where he stabilised the club in La Liga and introduced an entertaining style to Gran Canaria. He is a renowned maverick. A manager that moves in the opposite direction to the rest. Alongside his trusted – and well-respected – assistant Eder Sarabia, he has now added the spark that Betis have long been lacking.
Real Betis have long been called the sleeping giant of Spanish football; based in a city that lives and breathes football, their newly expanded home El Estadio Benito Villarmarin has a capacity of over 60,000 and, more often than not, it is full. But having spent a season in Segunda and many years looking up to their city rivals – at least in European competition – the appointment of Setien has brought about a fresh start. They’re reinvigorated. The shackles are off, and the fans love it.
This season, Betis have been the entertainers. Setien’s style is to attack and impress when doing so. Little thought is given to defending, if any. However, of late, their style has slightly shifted – still impressive but more measured. Possibly with the chance of obtaining a European place, Setien has looked to tighten up his defence, a nod to his critics perhaps. Marc Bartra came in during the winter transfer winter and Betis have now won their last five matches with four clean sheets. The accusation that Betis cannot defend is certainly no longer valid.
To travel up to Catalunya to face another side, in Girona, who also hold ambitions of being in Europe next season was a golden opportunity. Girona have defied all expectations this season, to predict that they would even have the chance to fight for a coveted top-seven finish would have been followed by mockery. However, the work of Pablo Machin has paid off and an unbeaten home run during 2018 has added increased hope for a spectacular finish to their first season in Spain’s top division.
How has this been able to happen? Well akin to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga and even Burnley in the Premier League, there has been a rise of the unexpected in Spain too. Along with well-established clubs such as Bayer Leverkusen and Borrusia Monchengladbach in Germany and Everton in England, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have vacated their usual European places during a disappointing season. Hence a gap has opened up for Girona and Real Betis – and even earlier in the season there were Getafe and Eibar challenging as well – to exploit.
On a wet evening in the North-East of Spain the umbrellas were out in force. The constant drizzle produced a slick top on which the ball skated quickly from the kickoff. Both sides tussled for early domination, Girona had the ball in the back of the net but it was ruled out for offside. With Cristhian Stuani leading the Girona attack – as he has done impressively all season – there were crosses aplenty towards the target man, possibly hinting at a Betis weakness.
And it was from one of Girona’s crosses that Real Betis scored. Collected at the edge of their own area, Betis began to brake and quickly. 36-year-old Joaquin found the ball at his feet with still half of the pitch to cover. He dribbled as if he was 16, holding off the backtracking Girona midfielders. Then the Betis veteran released a perfectly weighted through ball just outside of the Girona area. Bernardo tried to intercept it – collapsing to the floor and sticking out a leg – but the ball kept moving and into the path of Betis’ man of the moment Loren Moron. He took the ball in his stride and dinked it over the on-rushing Yassine Bounou. There was never any doubt that Moron would miss, his coolness, his touch were measured and assured.
But not to be suppressed for long, the home side attacked straight from the restart and, hadn’t it been for Aissa Mandi’s clearance on the line, Girona could have had an immediate equaliser. The half-time whistle came and so did a shout of “Girona” from the stands. The match was far from over and everyone knew it.
Girona continued with their crosses after the break – be it from corners or just deliveries from the wing – aimed at Stuani but few causing any serious difficulties for the Betis backline. Los verdiblancos were happy to sit deep, absorb pressure and then counter. But the pressure from Girona was sustained – they could sense an opening.
Johan Mojica sent a teasing ball in from the left. It was low and full of pace directed between the defenders in dark green and Daniel Gimenez, the goalkeeper. It bypassed them all, and arriving at the back post was Stuani who slid directing the ball into the net. The Uruguayan celebrated what would have been his 18th goal of the season but the assistant’s flag was raised. Offside was the decision, and rightly so.
Cristian Tello came on for Betis and immediately made an impact when in possession. He twisted and turned on the edge of the area before cutting back on himself and sending Jonas Ramalho sliding in the opposite direction. Back down the other end and there was another cross, another goal but also another offside decision. On this occasion, Stuani looked onside as he strode in to head the ball past Gimenez but celebrations were once again cut short as the assistant’s flag was raised.
Betis had their backs against the wall. Girona fans were on the referee’s back. Heroics were needed to keep the aggrieved home players at bay. Gimenez elaborately punched away a looping shot, Marc Bartra slid to intercept another through-ball. Betis’ new found confidence at the back was on full show. Machin waved his players on. A defeat was far from the end of the world, but their European hopes would take a serious dent.
Despite Girona’s constant pressure, Betis continually looked to break – Tello was often leading it. Time was running out. Joaquin exited, his work was done. And so was Betis’. The travelling fans in the far corner of Montilivi – had been in good voice all evening – but had by now started to sing that bit louder, that bit more confidently. It was evident what a huge result this was for the Andalucians. Quique Setien embraced his coaches, Bartra grabbed Joaquin and flung him around like a ragdoll – which surely isn’t the best thing at his age. They ran over to the couple of hundred travelling Beticos and carried on their celebrations there.
The defeat left Girona feeling annoyed, their chances of qualifying for Europe now rests with slip-ups from Villarreal and Sevilla. “I do not want to focus on controversy,” said Machin, “It is difficult to referee. My team gave it all and we did everything to win. I’m proud.”
However, at full-time, there was only one name on everyone’s lips. “The art of Joaquin,” gave Betis the victory hailed AS. “Joaquin closes in on the European dream,” was the headline in Marca. “I appreciate the perfection of Joaquin’s assist,” Loren Moron told reporters post-match, “he knew how to find the hole.” And Betis knew how to find the victory, a very precious victory. “The victory was fair,” claimed Setien, whose chance to guide Betis in Europe looks more probable as every game passes. Finally, the sleeping giant of Spain is waking up and it is heading for Europe.
Los Otros Puntos
- There have been headers, flicks, free kicks, wonderful team goals and numerous magical Leo Messi moments but few will come close to the strike from about 25 yards out by Getafe’s Damien Suarez. The ball was teed of to the Uruguayan from a free kick and was struck – by his right foot – towards the top right corner. It flew as straight as an arrow, leaving those in the Espanyol wall with windswept hair. A thunderbolt of the highest quality, the technique and precision was there for all to see. Jose Bordalas waved his finger. It was a naughty strike. A contender for goal of the season, for sure. It gave the home side the three points and, quite possibly, Suarez some sort of award.
- It stood for 38 years and took 39 matches to beat it but against Valencia in the Camp Nou it was broken. It started in April 2017 against Real Sociedad and on Saturday afternoon Barcelona overtook Real Sociedad’s record to go 39 La Liga matches without defeat. ‘Barca rise up’ was Mundo Deportivo’s headline on Sunday, there was no better way to come back from the disappointment of Tuesday evening in Rome.
- In November, Villarreal were 2-0 up against Sevilla but ended up losing 3-2. On Saturday, Villarreal were again 2-0 up with 13 minutes left to play – Daniel Raba and Carlos Bacca had put them ahead – but this time they managed to hold on for a draw. Juame Costa got sent off for los armilos before Nolito and Steven N’zonzi got Sevilla’s two goals. Real Betis watched on – most likely still feeling the effects of the night before – and rubbed their hands with glee.
- Another Adrian Lopez double and another Deportivo victory, well pigs may fly. Athletic Bilbao, on the other hand, are having a far from great season. Cuco Ziganda’s position looks increasingly in doubt next season.
- “We are lacking footballing resources,” was Paco Jemez’s remark about Las Palmas, that’s not ideal for a football club.
Girona 0–1 Real Betis
Sevilla 2–2 Villarreal
Barcelona 2–1 Valencia
Las Palmas 0–1 Real Sociedad
Leganes 1–0 Celta Vigo
Athletic Bilbao 2–3 Deportivo
Eibar 0–1 Alaves
Atletico Madrid 3–0 Levante
Getafe 1–0 Espanyol
Malaga 1–2 Real Madrid
El Jugador de la Semana: Damien Suarez (Getafe)
|18||Deportivo La Coruna||32||-33||26|