Sevilla star Pablo Sarabia has a point to prove vs. old boss Jose Mourinho
When Sevilla play Manchester United in the Champions League last-16 fixture Wednesday night, the Andalusians' star Pablo Sarabia will not only meet the side that considered signing him twice in the past. He is also about to face the coach who put an end to his most sacred dream.
It was Jose Mourinho who sanctioned selling Sarabia from Real Madrid to Getafe in the summer of 2011 for €3 million. "Mourinho spoke to me before I left, but I won't reveal what he said. He gave me my debut for Real, and I am thankful for that," the midfielder said.
That debut was indeed quite emotional. In Dec. 2010, the 18-year-old Sarabia replaced none other than Cristiano Ronaldo in the 4-0 thrashing of Auxerre in the Champions League. He made a positive impression and was on the field when Karim Benzema completed his hat trick, but eventually those turned out to be the only 18 minutes he played for the senior side. And so, the youngster was a Getafe player already when he captained Spain to the European Under-19 Championship in 2011.
That was rather surprising, because Sarabia was the leader and the undisputed No. 10 of the squad that included his very close friend Dani Carvajal, Alvaro Morata, Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu. "He is a very good player who is capable of scoring a lot of goals," the respected U19 national team coach Gines Melendez remarked back then, and that view was shared by almost everyone who saw the versatile star in action, ever since he joined the Real academy at the age of 12.
Countless scouts came to witness his progress, and in 2007 both Manchester United and Arsenal proposed the 15-year-old to join their ranks. Sarabia refused and signed a contract with his beloved Real instead. He aspired to follow in the footsteps of his idol Zinedine Zidane, and was considered one of the brightest talents at Castilla. Three years later, though, he understood that the way up was blocked, and -- just like other graduates including Ruben de la Red, Esteban Granero and Dani Parejo -- made a short trip south to join Getafe whose president Angel Torres is a self-confessed Real fan.
Granero and De la Red eventually returned to Real. So did Carvajal, sent away by Mourinho to Bayer Leverkusen in 2012, but brought back a year later after mightily impressing in the Bundesliga, thanks to a useful buy-back clause in his contract. Los Blancos had such an option for Sarabia as well, but never thought of triggering it because the midfielder had a slow start at his new club, mostly used as a substitute in his first two seasons there.
There is something amusing about Sarabia's career, as he seemed to be overrated and underrated at the same time. Getafe introduced him very gradually, but when he became a starter in 2013, Torres didn't hesitate to compare him to Isco, who had just been signed by Real from Malaga. "There is no difference. Instead of paying for Isco, they could have promoted Sarabia from their academy," he claimed.
Indeed, the midfielder was in Spain's U21 squad that won the 2013 European Championship as a backup for Isco. They share similar qualities, even though Sarabia is left-footed. Like Isco, Sarabia is blessed with great vision and dribbling skills, and can play anywhere across the offensive midfield.
At the time, Manchester United were linked to him again, and the youngster was clearly delighted. "If the interest is real, I am proud that such a great club noticed me," the midfielder admitted, claiming that he would be delighted to play in the Premier League. Nothing came out of it, though, and Sarabia remained at Getafe until 2016, when they were relegated, ironically in the midfielder's best personal season for them.
Sarabia, who suffered from a poor record in front of goal for too long, finally netted seven times in La Liga that term, and it was obvious that he couldn't afford to play in the Segunda Division. Numerous top clubs were interested, and Sevilla sporting director Monchi used his good personal relations with Torres to close the deal. "With Monchi, we can settle the issue in three minutes," the Getafe owner said, and that is what eventually happened.
The most astonishing aspect, however, was the fee. Monchi, who is sorely missed by Sevilla nowadays after moving to Roma, is known for his uncanny ability to sign quality players at a low price, but getting Sarabia for just €1m was truly outstanding even by his standards. The Andalusians received a dedicated and intelligent player, who studied business management and -- despite possessing individual talent -- always puts the team's interests ahead of his own.
Jorge Sampaoli rotated the team very heavily in 2016-17, but Sarabia didn't complain about lack of playing time. He knew that there simply are no certain starters at Sevilla and saw it as an advantage. The system continued under Eduardo Berizzo at the start of the current campaign, but the midfielder remarked: "It is possible for us to play a starting eleven in one match and perform at a high level, and put a completely different starting lineup in the following game at the same level." That is true under the current boss Vincenzo Montella, who trusts Sarabia even more, and for a good reason.
No player made a more direct contribution than Sarabia last term, as he netted eight times in La Liga to go along with eight assists. He is leading Sevilla this season too, with five goals and five assists to his name, and 2018 has been especially positive for him with the new Italian on the bench.
Sarabia scored against Atletico Madrid in Copa del Rey and has netted four times in the league this calendar year, including the winning strikes against Girona and Las Palmas in the last two weeks. Bold and inventive, he is a joy to watch when on song, and is finally starting to fulfil the big potential at the age of 25. He should be the key player in this tie, trying to upset his former coach.
And then, maybe, Mourinho would understand that he made a mistake seven years ago.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.