Often overlooked Ben Yedder, Sarabia can no longer be ignored at title-chasing Sevilla
There's a little miracle happening in Spanish football right now, and no, it's not just Lionel Messi. The fact that the Argentinian genius is having to produce some of the most outstanding moments of his career simply to keep Barcelona nosing ahead of Sevilla at the top of La Liga is remarkable enough.
Sevilla are putting the "race" back into title race. Hallelujah.
Remember: This is a Sevilla side who appointed a new manager after last season, who no longer benefit from one of the most brilliant directors of football in modern times, who lost three of their best footballers, dumped two keepers and signed a new netminder in the summer, who managed only four from their first 12 points and whose fans, after a particularly brutal defeat at home on Matchday 4, bayed for coach Pablo Machin to be sacked -- immediately.
Those facts already make Los Rojiblancos' performance thus far -- in topping their Europa League group, bobbing between top and second in La Liga and boasting the second-best goal difference in Spain's top division -- quite exceptional.
But to understand just how crazy things are, you'd have to take into account that Sevilla fully expected to sign both Mariano (now at Real Madrid) and Portu (stayed at Girona) because Machin didn't much fancy Wissam Ben Yedder and because the club weren't doing a whole lot to prevent Pablo Sarabia from signing for Real Sociedad.
That was summer. This is winter, and boy, how the picture has changed.
Ben Yedder, never shy of carrying an extra kilo or two (which he can ill-afford), didn't start a game until Matchweek 5 and didn't play 90 minutes until Matchweek 9. Sarabia, the guy who began his Champions League career at age 18 in Jose Mourinho's Madrid with Jerzy Dudek in goal and Pedro Leon on the wing, chose to stay for his own reasons rather than remaining at Sevilla because the club persuaded him.
Staying by default, you could call it. Perhaps he simply didn't fancy La Real's chances this season. They are five points off relegation and a whopping 12 points behind second-placed Sevilla.
The icing on the cake is this: Ben Yedder has scored 13 times in 17 starts, while Sarabia is hitting the net at a far faster rate than at any time in his life. That's 14 in 21 starts. From midfield.
Ben Yedder is the No. 1 assist provider for Sarabia and Sarabia the No. 1 assist provider for Ben Yedder. Between them, they've created 13 goals in all competitions this season and scored 27 -- a total of 40 with their boot prints on them. It's a fabulous statistic, especially for two players who were made to feel so unwanted in the summer.
It's all set against a backdrop of something approaching organisational chaos at Sevilla.
For example: Can you remember how many coaches have been in charge since Unai Emery departed for Paris Saint-Germain with the last of Sevilla's Europa League titles under his arm in June 2016? Five. That's a new boss every six months on average -- not great.
Meanwhile, there's an emerging move to sell the club to foreign investors, something to which Sevilla's notoriously fierce, passionate, noisy and often conservative fans have taken very badly, indeed.
Some of this mess might explain why Sarabia -- distinctly the club's best, most exciting, most effective and most desirable footballer -- is still stuck on wages that don't reflect his worth, with a buyout clause of just €18 million. It's an incredible fee, one that could triggered by almost any sizeable club in Europe this January. And, believe me, there isn't a single club in any of the top leagues that wouldn't benefit from his brilliance. In England, you'd do well to get a promising 17-year-old left back from Bolton Wanderers for that fee, let alone a guy whose performance in Spain this season is second only to Messi's.
What's utterly bizarre is that, as far as Sarabia is concerned, history keeps repeating itself.
His development at Real Madrid -- where he was a contemporary of Dani Carvajal, Nacho and Alvaro Morata, who have 10 Champions Leagues between them -- came to a truncated end when he moved to Getafe to get game-time, a victim of the star system in Los Blancos' galaxy. Then, having looked a dandy at Getafe, it took only €400,000 for Sevilla to prise him away.
Apparently it's easy to underestimate and undervalue this diamond of a player.
It's an idea further underlined by the fact that although Sarabia played in Julen Lopetegui's U21 European Championship-winning side in Israel five years ago, he simply can't get a sniff of the national team under Luis Enrique. He has been the best Spanish player this season. Nobody, with the possible exception of Jordi Alba, has been better, more consistent, less injury-prone, more creative, quicker, smarter or more attractive to watch. Yet while Luis Enrique has marched his way through dozens of players across his failed Nations League campaign, Sarabia has been ignored.
Part of his goal explosion this season is that Machin has been shrewd enough to move Sarabia from flank and place him as the No. 10 who benefits from the joys of Mudo Vazquez and Ever Banega behind him, plus Ben Yedder and Andre Silva in front of him. It's a joy to watch.
The Madrileno will score and create off his left foot, right foot, cutting in off either wing, playing down the middle, darting into the penalty box off a neatly timed one-two passing movement, and he'll always show for the ball. He is one of those footballers who genuinely wants to be in possession all the time and isn't fazed by pressure -- not one iota.
I guess, so far, it has been only an enjoyable aperitif -- not the real thing. Twice already this season, Sevilla have lost to Barcelona: Once narrowly in the Super Cup and once, rather outplayed, in the Liga match in which Messi fractured his arm.
Do they have the defence, do they have the depth, do they have the chutzpah to win this title in a season in which the oddest results keep cropping up and when the thoroughbreds Barcelona desire the Champions League so much more than another La Liga title? The evidence from the last time Madrid and Barcelona stumbled simultaneously and another club, Atletico Madrid, lifted the title suggests they do not.
Back in 2014, Atleti won La Liga on the last day with a draw at the Camp Nou. Just a single goal more for Barcelona, meaning a win on that Matchday 38, would have robbed Diego Simeone and his troops of their hard-won title. That's how tight it was.
Yet on Matchday 16 that season, Atleti were far, far better looking than this Sevilla side. At this same stage that season, Atleti's record was: won 14, drawn one, lost one, scored 43, conceded nine. They make today's Sevilla look like Liliputians. After 16 matches, Machin's side have lost three, drawn four and scored only 29. However, and this is vital, back in 2013-14, Atleti were tied on points at the top after Matchday 16, and today, Sevilla are tucked in nicely a mere three points behind Barca.
The previous outsider to win the title was Rafa Benitez's Valencia in 2004. Whisper it, but Los Che, that title-winning season, were only marginally ahead of Sevilla's stats this term at the identical stage. More exciting still, two years previously in 2001-02, Valencia, who'd end the season as champions, were eighth at this stage, had won only five times and scored a meagre 15 goals.
All of that is to say that while you might join me in saying, "It can't be done. Sevilla simply can't win this Primera Division race," history doesn't quite agree with us.
For the moment, enjoy.
Machin, Sarabia, Ben Yedder & Co. are ensuring that there's a new dog in the race and pushing Messi to stellar new displays of brilliance in order to keep the reigning champions reigning. What's not to like?