Montilivi, Girona – He wasn’t supposed to be here. Neither was he. In fact, no one was meant to be here. In Javier Tebas’ world, Montilivi would have been empty on Sunday afternoon, not a soul in sight except for the odd groundsman going about his daily business. There was a possibility, actually more than a possibility, that Girona would have faced Barcelona over 7,500 kilometres away in Miami. But rightly, on this particular late January afternoon, Montilivi was packed out with supporters seeing what they should be able to see: a home match being played at home.

There was constant opposition to Tebas’ plans and although both Barcelona and Girona were initially happy to go along with it all, by Sunday they were glad to still be in their home province having distanced themselves from the entire debate. There were to be 1500 free flights given to Girona season ticket holders and 5000 tickets for the reverse fixture earlier in the season, the numbers of who took up the travel option that Tebas offered are unknown but the fact that only 1300 of the 5000 Camp Nou tickets were used hints at the enduring sentiment.

What had been forgotten amidst this entire debacle was that Girona against Barcelona is a Catalonian derby, which means a lot politically in today’s climate but also is a must-see fixture for Girona supporters. To say that this is one of the biggest and most prestigious weeks in Girona’s history would not be wide of the mark. Thus it was right – and for sporting reasons, best – that this clash with the La Liga leaders was played in Catalonia rather than South Florida. Instead of the circus that Tebas would have created had he got his way where the actual 90 minutes of football would have been close to the bottom of the priority list behind autograph signings and marketing campaigns, where it got the attention that it deserved.

And despite Girona currently being in between two legs of Copa del Rey quarter-final action against Real Madrid, there was very much a sense that this was the game that mattered. Girona are seldom used to facing such high-quality opponents in the space of a few days. They have never reached this stage of the Copa del Rey before but nevertheless, the league takes priority, especially this season. When asked to comment on this statement following their 4-2 beating at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday evening, Girona manager Eusebio Sacristan was quick to reply with “Yes!” not just once but twice, adding greater emphasis.

“Clearly, what matters is the league,” he said; irrespective of the chance to reach the semi-finals, Girona are focused on the league. The starting lineup then was telling – there was no Christian Stuani or Portu who are the club’s leading goalscorers this season, and only three of the starting XI had played more than half the league games this season – likewise was Eusebio’s response as to whether his side would fight for the comeback in the return leg. “We’ll try,” was his response, a rallying cry it was not. Despite losing by two goals against Real Madrid, Girona did score two themselves and led twice too, but as with everyone in Spain currently, Girona do not have too much love for the cup.

Humbling Real Madrid this coming week is far from impossible, but given the attitudes it is improbable. Girona are content to not fight hammer and tongue for what would have felt – and still does in reality – like an impossible dream of winning a trophy. They are happy to pass on what could lead to the greatest moment in their history. Having only participated in Primera action for two seasons, this is all still rather dreamy; the locals are almost bragging that they’ve got two home games in the space of four days against such illustrious opponents, but it is a sign of how far the club has come.

Hence it is understandable why Girona want this to continue. A cup win for anyone is an achievement and for Girona it would only increase the pride that the supporters have for their club but after the short burst of triumph the reality would lie with the league and whether they remain in the top-flight. Staying in La Liga is the priority and it is that which will allow Girona to grow further.

On Sunday morning they were in 12th place in the standings, which may seem innocuous but in this La Liga season is only four points above the drop. It is tight and tense but a whole lot of fun, and that is why Girona are addressing every match as meticulously as possible, the finer margins are increasingly crucial. It may sound silly but there are a host of La Liga teams who are fighting on two fronts this season; trying to reach a European place and avoiding relegation.

The cluster of 12 teams, those below Real Betis, are fighting to not join the seemingly doomed Huesca heading for Segunda. Girona are one of those sides and a recent slide is leading them deeper into the bedlam. They haven’t won in the league since late November and their January cup run, in which they have eliminated Atletico Madrid, has distracted slightly from the slide that they have been on. It may be the case that Girona’s exertions in the Copa del Rey have been detrimental to their league form over the past few weeks despite the changes that Eusebio has made.

Facing Barcelona is never an easy task, and prior to kickoff, there was a positive atmosphere around the stadium albeit the chances of victory were unlikely. They did test Barcelona though and despite taking an early lead the visitors were never fully comfortable. It wasn’t until Leo Messi doubled the visitors’ lead could they rest easy. Girona grew into the game and were able to craft chances but struggled to convert. Eusebio’s side showed plenty of energy and desire but were not clinical enough to push Barcelona to the limit who themselves were methodical rather than spectacular.

Barcelona took the lead in the opening 10 minutes; Girona’s defence struggled to deal with a rather tame cross from Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal’s quick response was enough to allow Nelson Semedo to swipe the ball past Bono in the Girona net. As the darkened clouds overhead began to spit, Barcelona were able to deploy their swift passes on an increasingly slick surface. The visitors probed and prodded; Philippe Coutinho wasted an inviting goalscoring chance with a timid shot when one-on-one with Bono.

No sooner had the deluge relented, the sun was out – umbrellas were put down and factor 40 applied – and Girona created their best chance of the half with the upturn in weather just prior to the break. Portu fired a shot at Marc Andre ter-Stegen but the goalkeeper could only deny with his legs and the rebound from Pere Pons was cleared off the line by Gerard Pique. The impetus was with the hosts as the second half began, Ter Stegen was forced into save after save to deny Pere Pons and Stuani. The sending off of Bernardo Espinosa for two innocuous fouls led Eusebio to switch from three at the back to four but they were let off with a decrease in Barcelona’s intensity, in fact, it was even difficult to tell which side was down to 10 men.

That was until Messi received a square pass from Jordi Alba on the edge of the area and played one touch towards the goal and then another to lift the ball over Bono and in. With 20 minutes left there was diminished belief that Girona could rescue anything, and had it not been for Bono denying Messi and Suarez the scoreline could have shown a wider deficit. Yet there was no self-respect lost here, and even Alba in his post-match interview reiterated that he believes Girona are one of the best footballing sides in the division. Girona remain without a league win in two months and their regression must be addressed but on this particular Sunday the home supporters didn’t mind the rain, nor the beaming sun and not even the defeat, they were just happy to see their side play Barcelona at home.

Los Otros Puntos

Mauricio Pellegrino let out a sigh of relief as he left the dugout after this encounter which typified a match of two halves. The Leganes manager had seen his side manage to come from two goals down to take a valuable point; Kike and Joan Jordan gave Eibar a 2-0 half time lead but Youssef En-Nesyri scored a second-half brace. The draw maintained Leganes’ unbeaten home run in the league which now stretches to eight matches and mid-September. And it is that home form which is keeping Leganes on the right side of the relegation zone as remarkably they have only won one away game in the league (against Valladolid in December) since October 2017.

It hasn’t been a bad week for Sevilla; they beat Barcelona 2-0 in the home leg of their quarter-final in the Copa del Rey and three days later they put five past Levante to strengthen their position in the top four. Seeing out this cup quarter-final with the return leg coming up on Wednesday will be a huge feather in the cap of Pablo Machin who has certainly enhanced his reputation since becoming manager in the summer. If Sevilla do eliminate Barcelona then it will offer some revenge for the hammering that they had to endure in last season’s final. “The team always has desire,” Machin said. “They’re always full of energy, I really appreciate the effort they put in.”

Marcelino’s 300th match as a La Liga manager was a victorious one. It took Valencia up two places into 7th and the 3-0 scoreline only added more anguish to their neighbours Villarreal who remain embedded in the relegation zone.

San Mames was alive on Sunday evening! Gaizka Garritano has got Athletic Bilbao competing again. That was a huge win against Real Betis.

Bale is back! And he provided Real Madrid‘s fourth in the win over Espanyol.

Los Resultados

Sevilla 5-0 Levante

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Getafe

Leganes 2-2 Eibar

Valencia 3-0 Villarreal

Valladolid 2-1 Celta Vigo

Girona 0-2 Barcelona

Real Sociedad 0-0 Huesca

Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Real Betis

Espanyol 2-4 Real Madrid

Alaves – Rayo Vallecano to be played on Monday

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis Opinion

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