In each of the last two seasons, there have been periods when Sevilla could consider themselves a real threat in the La Liga title race.
This may have been more relevant in the 2020-21 season, although it should not be forgotten that Sevilla looked like the only team capable of stopping Real Madrid in the first half of the 2021-22 season.
But a lot has changed in 2022. On Saturday they will go to the Santiago Bernabéu as bigger underdogs than they have been in this match for many years.
This of course does not mean that they have ever been considered favorites against Madrid in recent times, but there will be some Sevilla fans who are just hoping they can hold on to a decent score – that is quite a significant drop for a club that in the past three years felt that they were not far from establishing themselves as real candidates for the title.
Saturday’s game will be new coach Jorge Sampaoli’s first trip to one of the two big teams since his return and will provide the clearest picture of what his team’s ceiling is.
Jump before you get pushed
Julen Lopetegui was supposed to leave Sevilla in the offseason. Even then it was clear that the team needed an injection of fresh ideas, and the departure of Diego Carlos and Jules Kunde – the basis of Sevilla for three seasons – seemed a natural indicator of the necessary changes.
During Lopetegui’s time at the club, Sevilla were solid defensively but unremarkable offensively. He will know that his partnership with a centre-back – arguably the best in Europe – will be lost, so Sevilla will either have to sign another exceptional pair (which is unlikely) or buy a reliable striker.
Of course, Lopetegui can only work with a group of players provided to him by sporting director Monchi, so not everything depends on him. However, in the first weeks of the season, there was no sign of an improvement in offense, and the insurance policy represented by a strong defense was no longer there.
Result? Sevilla’s five points after the first seven games of the season were the worst at this stage since the 1996-97 season (four points). They were dropped in that campaign.
It was their record since a 2-0 home defeat to Atlético Madrid in early October, a defeat that effectively ended Lopetegui’s reign. A few days later, he was sacked in the immediate aftermath of a 4-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund, although it was clear that a decision had already been made on his future as he tearfully said goodbye to fans from midfield during regular time.
The 4-1 loss to BVB was Sevilla’s fourth defeat by at least two goals this season, three more than in the entire 2021–22 season.
A Europa League title, three consecutive fourth places, a new club record in a single season (77) – Lopetegui did a good job overall, but their form in the second half of last season hinted at a downturn.
Their record of 32 points after the start of the year (20 matches) was only the sixth highest in La Liga and 13 behind Barcelona. Until January, they scored 38 points in two games less – only Real Madrid had more (46, 19 matches).
This hint of decline turned out to be more of an omen.
Back to the Future
Not many players or coaches return to Sevilla. Those that do fall into one of two categories: fan favorites returning to spend their last years in top-level football; a man whose “big move” didn’t go as planned and hopes to restore his reputation.
The last category is more suitable for Sampaoli.
French football fans may assume that his job at Marseille is doing him a disservice, and perhaps it is. After all, it was he who had led them to only a second finish in nine seasons last semester, having stabilized the ship after arriving in a period of great turmoil.
Even so, it’s fair to assume that Sampaoli’s stock has yet to fully recover to where it was when he first left Sevilla in 2017. team and then Sevilla, whom he led to the first top four in seven years playing flamboyant football – along the way they were also the team that stopped Spain’s record 40 match unbeaten streak.
Argentina called and, given the coach’s reputation at the time, expectations were sky high. But the turbulence in 2018 World Cup qualification has shown that Sampaoli and La Albiceleste are not necessarily a match. He almost brought them to Russia, but their campaign was chaotic: a 3-0 loss to Croatia led to a clear showdown between the players and the coaching staff.
A 2-1 win over Nigeria took Argentina out of the group, but eventual champions France were next and Les Bleus beat modern classics 4-3 in Kazan – no wonder that was Sampaoli’s last game.
Whether this debacle made Sampaoli a pariah in European football is difficult to prove. But in a little over a year he went from one of the most sought-after and promising coaches in the world to almost forgotten in Europe, and his next two jobs were in Brazil, at Santos and Atlético Mineiro.
The aforementioned flamboyant spell with Marcel reminded Europe of the charms of Sampaoli; his frenetic nature, his often chaotic football. In many ways, he was the perfect man for Marseille, a club from a city that is uncompromising and tense in its own right.
Sevilla have some similar characteristics, especially in their deep passion for their football clubs, and there is no doubt that Sampaoli has unfinished business in La Liga and at Sevilla.
It’s been four games and he hasn’t lost yet, but a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu is no ordinary task. In fact, Sampaoli’s last away game during his first spell at Sevilla was a 4-1 loss to Real Madrid, who nearly ended the 2016-17 title with this victory.
Of course, what happens at the Bernabéu will not determine Sevilla’s season. They have a long journey and recovery ahead of them; let’s not forget that this is a team made for Lopetegui, but he and Sampaoli are very different coaches.
Cheer up the team – the task of Sampaoli, and if he succeeds, his reputation will be restored. Saturday gives an exhausted Sevilla an opportunity to show that they are at least getting positive results.