Could Sevilla really win La Liga? If they beat Barcelona, anything's possible
At the end of Sevilla's Champions League victory at Old Trafford last season, the striker Wissam Ben Yedder was asked to deliver a message for the fans. Scorer of the two goals that had sent them through to the quarterfinal for the first time in 60 years, at first he appeared a little awkward and timid, but then his answer gave way to him singing the club's anthem -- a song that, it would be no exaggeration to say, has had a transformative power over the Sánchez Pizjuan since it was written by former youth-teamer El Arrebato a decade ago.
For a brief moment, it had a transformative power over Ben Yedder, too. There's a phrase that says something about singing your troubles away. The nerves were gone, for a few seconds at least. First mumbling, then in song, performing the line about the Giralda, Seville's Moorish tower aged over 800 years standing proud, he insisted on the first line of the anthem: "Sevilla never give up," he said, smiling a little bashfully. And nor, he might have added, does he, even if the effort is not always externalised.
Ben Yedder departed Old Trafford a hero. He had arrived as a sub but he had made history. After the first goal, he ran to the touchline where Luis Muriel, the man he'd replaced, was waiting to embrace him. The message seemed as clear as the reaction was genuine: told you!. The fans had told him too. As he warmed up, they had chanted: "We want Ben Yedder to score."
He'd barely been on the pitch a few minutes when he did, and it hadn't been an easy season. Muriel had been signed with the idea of replacing him. And although he had started the season under Eduardo Berizzo -- he had scored in five of their first 10 games of the season, including a hat-trick against Maribor, and scored three times against Liverpool -- a sneaking doubt seemed to follow him. When Vincenzo Montella took over, he was relegated to the bench.
"I don't know if he was sad; it is true that he hasn't had a good time of it these last few months," Clement Lenglet said after Old Trafford. "Now all we can do is give him thanks."
That sadness didn't entirely go away, though, nor did the shyness. Montella did leave; under Joaquín Caparros, temporary manager and the new sporting director, he played, but in the summer there were again doubts about his continuity and where he fit in. Sevilla's new manager, Pablo Machin, had a clear idea about a shift in style and formation, applying the wing-back system he had used to such great effect at Girona, and said he was determined to sign a striker who could act as a reference point for the team.
"That was what I most fought with the club over," Ben Yedder admitted.
Andre Silva eventually arrived on loan from Milan, and while Machin insisted that didn't mean that Ben Yedder was for sale, nor did his future appear entirely secure. It seemed likely that Sevilla would set up with a solitary striker, Pablo Sarabia and Franco Vazquez behind him.
Nor did the season start as he would have wished. In the Super Cup against Barcelona, he missed a vital penalty. "He's a player who you sometimes feel is distant. Because of the character he has, it can seem like things are not for him, but he was totally destroyed, crying," said Machin.
On the opening game of the league season, he stayed on the bench while Silva scored a hat-trick at Rayo. Ben Yedder got seven minutes the following week in a 0-0 draw with Villarreal and none in the derby the week after that, when Sevilla were defeated. He came on at half-time against Getafe with the team 2-0 down the week after and could not turn it around. He didn't seem to fit Machin's plans, plans that already looked under threat -- some even started talking about the new manager getting the sack, just four weeks into the league season.
Together, they overcame that. Where there were whistles, there are roars now.
Ben Yedder played futbol sala until the age of 20. When Sevilla signed him from France, some at the club likened him to Romario: small, skilful, excellent in tight spaces. Maybe he was more like the Brazilian than they intended: he could seem a little distant and seemingly disengaged at times, as if he was playing his own game. The collective fit was not always natural, off the pitch as well as on it.
"Maybe he doesn't have much charisma, maybe his physical appearance isn't ideal..." said Machin.
Maybe his singing voice isn't the best, either -- although everyone loved the fact that Wissam Ben Yedder had tried, and they loved the reason he had tried even more. Two goals against Manchester United, for goodness sake. Now, six months on, his manager says he loves the fact that he's trying more than ever before, which is why that quote is incomplete and why the rest follows below.
In Week 4, Ben Yedder started his first league game for Sevilla. Machin's plans were shaped by reality; he was pragmatic and intelligent enough to embrace that. Some of the pieces fit perfectly -- Jesus Navas took to the wing-back role like he had waited his entire career for this -- but injury also forced his hand. Banega went into "defensive" midfield, Sarabia and Vazquez in front of him, and an extra striker was introduced.
Sevilla went ultra-attacking, and it worked.
There are still flaws, still gaps in the squad, and they are desperate to get their injured players back, sign reinforcements in the winter and have the ability to rotate more -- they have already played 17 games this season -- but the solutions they sought have been successful. Banega has recovered more balls than anyone. Sarabia, as adaptable as almost any attacking player in Spain and surely worthy of an international call over the past 10 months or so, has shone in a slightly deeper, more interior role. Navas zips around, apparently ageless. No one has more assists than those two. Simon Kjaer has been vital, three centre-backs seemingly releasing the rest to attack, the team rarely taking its foot off the accelerator.
The extra striker, of course, is Ben Yedder. Put into the team in Week 4, he scored a hat-trick against Levante. Three days later, Real Madrid came to the Pizjuan and Sevilla tore them to pieces. Two more wins followed. Four wins in a row, 14 goals scored -- just before that, they put five past Standard Liege -- and they were top of the table. They have not been top this far into the season for over a decade. They have not scored this many at this stage for over half a century. Ben Yedder has scored nine goals by himself, five in the league.
"Maybe he doesn't have much charisma, maybe his physical appearance isn't ideal... but there's no arguing with his numbers," said Machin.
But nor is it just the numbers. Silva has seven goals, the country's second top scorer, in part thanks to Ben Yedder, who for perhaps the first time feels like a starter at Sevilla. Not least because he is doing the things that earn him that status.
"I never doubted his goal-scoring ability: I asked him to do other things. I thought he could be a better player and that means working more for the collective play," Machin said this week of Ben Yedder. "You can't ask him to do what he can't do, but he is more committed now. I have no complaints."
No one does. Winning the league is not Sevilla's objective, the president insists, while the manager keeps insisting that they have done "nothing yet." But on Saturday, they go to Barcelona. First vs. second in the league, and one of them is Sevilla. Machin describes it as an exam, a test of their true level at "the "hardest place." Daniel Carrico called it a chance to thump a fist on the desk and make a statement: Sevilla are serious.
Sevilla know this is dangerous. Joaquin Caparros insists: "[Lionel] Messi is like a lion. You have to stroke him and then maybe you can put your hand in his mouth and he won't bite you, but if you p--- him off, he'll tear your head off. It's best not to annoy Messi."
Yet Sevilla also know that Barcelona are vulnerable, and with momentum gathering, there is hope. This game certainly doesn't mean they'll win the league, even if they win it, but it does mean something.
For Ben Yedder, too. Against Barcelona he missed the penalty that Machin says left him destroyed. Now, he is better than ever. Happier too, more committed, more open, more confident. "I hope he gets to take a penalty at the Camp Nou," said Machin. "That would be a good sign."