Sevilla broke their away-day hoodoo in the Europa League while Real Madrid face an uphill struggle after defeat in Wolfsburg
Record breakers. After 17 consecutive home victories, Sevilla finally lost at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Four days later, they finally won their first away game of the season, in Europe or the league. (In the Copa del Rey they defeated Second Division B Logrones, Second division Mirandes, and local rivals Betis, meaning that they had not beaten a single top division club outside the city of Seville.) In defeating Athletic Bilbao 2-1 at San Mames, coach Unai Emery racked up his 103rd victory in charge of the club – more than any other coach in history. More importantly, Sevilla took a big step towards the semi-final of the Europa league, on course still for a third title in a row.
Athletic took the lead with a header from Aritz Aduriz – and there are some words you’ve read rather a lot this year – but a mistake from Iker Muniain allowed Sevilla to equalise, just when Athletic seemed to be in control, before Iborra made it 2-1 late on. “The mistake cost us … but who’s never made a mistake?” said Ernesto Valverde, the Athletic coach. Next week, the second leg at the Sanchez Pizjuan promises to be special. Noisy, tense and exciting. “They can turn it round still,” warned Iborra.
No sooner had Operation Get It Horribly Wrong ended than Operation Comeback began, but at least this time they’re leaving Juanito alone. So far, anyway. The former Real Madrid player, who died in a car crash in 1992, famously warned Inter Milan “90 minutes at the Bernabeu are very long” after his side had lost a UEFA Cup first leg 2-0 and was proven right when they won the second 3-0, clinching another comeback. Since then, every time Madrid had needed a comeback, the talk had been of the Spirit of Juanito. But this time his son came out before they could wheel him out, pleading: “leave him alone… every time you bring him, you lose.”
He’s right too. The last time Madrid overturned a first leg deficit in Europe was 13 years ago. Since then they have tried eight times and failed them all. Not that anybody is letting that stop them. Nor are they letting Madrid’s desperately bad first leg performance stop them — not least because deep down, they still don’t think Wolfsburg are that good. “Whoever doesn’t believe in a come back, step aside,” ran Marca’s front page harangue the next day. The day after that, they led on what they reported the president Florentino Perez as having said after the game: “We’ll turn this round at the Bernabeu.” AS ran with: “They do believe.”
Thursday night is alright. Another Madrigal match, another Villarreal victory. And while no one is talking about them, attention inevitably turned towards Athletic-Sevilla and Dortmund-Liverpool, Marcelino’s team are quietly completing a hugely impressive season. Fourth place is virtually guaranteed and they’re 90 minutes away from the semi-final of the Europa League. “They’re the best team we have played,” Sparta Prague coach Zdenek Scasny said after Villarreal’s first-leg victory. Not that it will be easy for Villarreal: the first leg ended with a victory but also ended with Sparta Prague getting a vital away goal. It finished 2-1, with Denis Suarez starring and Cedric Bakambu getting both goals. That’s 19 now for the man who could well claim to be the signing of the season.
Miguel-Angel Gil Marin, Atletico’s CEO and son of former president Jesus Gil (he of the big belly and bigger charge sheet), put his team’s defeat against Barcelona down to a conspiracy. “Barcelona don’t need that kind of help. It makes you feel like giving up. Rummenigge wants the semi-finals to be between the teams that he thinks should rule and he’ll end up getting it,” he said. “Football can’t be a dictatorship of the big clubs. Football doesn’t belong to eight big clubs. It’s everyone’s and that’s the way it should be.”