Just when neutrals were starting to root for Sevilla in the Spanish title race, the outsiders fell to a disappointing 1-0 defeat by Athletic Club on Monday, leaving them six points below leaders Atletico Madrid.
In a tussle in which momentum has seemingly swung one way and another in the last couple of months, Julen Lopetegui’s team had quietly found some consistency, closed the gap and had a mathematical chance of shocking Atletico (76 points) as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona tied on 74 points going into gameweek 35.
Success for the Andalusians would have put them three points below the lesser capital club and one behind the team they face on Sunday.
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The failure to take their chances at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, having won their previous four on home turf and picked up 22 points from their last 24 in the league before Monday night, begs the question: who wants to win La Liga?
Undoubtedly, Youssef En-Nesyri rued the defeat more than most having had several chances to put the hosts in front before they were hit by a late Inaki Williams sucker punch. In fairness, it’d be remiss to dismiss visiting shot-stopper Unai Simon in the narrative, having thwarted the Morocco poacher with two impressive saves.
The first saw the Spain goalkeeper prevent a goal-bound header with a smart save down low with 23 minutes played before stopping then smothering another well-placed left-footed shot with half-time approaching.
Simon’s saves saw him named King of the Match in Andalusia, but En-Nesyri might feel he could have scored at least one of his four efforts on the day—joint-high with Lucas Ocampos. The 17-goal striker probably feels even worse when he recollects the 29th-minute decision to square to no one in particular despite being eyeball-to-eyeball with the in-form goalkeeper.
With the stakes being so high, Sevilla dropped the ball just when non-partisan fans began rooting for them. Admittedly, Lopetegui’s team have overachieved this term to even find themselves so close to the top of the standings; still, there has to be a tinge of disappointment despite guaranteed Champions League qualification.
En-Nesyri has netted 17 times, a staggering 12 more than the next highest in the side, which somewhat explains why Los Nervionenses have netted only 49 times this year. That tally is nine, 11 and a staggering 31 fewer than Real, Atletico and Barcelona respectively, while Real Sociedad (53) and Villarreal (51) have out-scored the team in fourth spot for now.
Their Morocco international accounts for 34.7 percent of Sevilla’s goals, a stat which demonstrates his influence in elevating a rather underwhelming attack.
While every goal the North African has scored has been inside the box, his penalty area instincts didn’t bear fruit in their damaging 1-0 loss last time out. He had Expected Goals of 0.5, the joint-highest on the home team whose eventual xG was 1.5 to Los Leones’ 0.8.
Their season has been typified by an overperformance of what’s expected and Lopetegui will hope for more of the same against a flagging Real who will be without the injured Sergio Ramos and doubtful Raphael Varane at Valdebebas on Sunday night.
Be that as it may, the Seville outfit have to overcome the feeling of inferiority against Los Blancos that has seen them lose four on the trot against the Madrid giants. Their last victory on the turf of the 13-time European champions came in 2008, a run Lopetegui’s team have to end this season to increase their chances of winning La Liga.
“We have had some very even matches against them, but they have ended up winning. This is now a different match. We'll try to get it right and help the players to achieve tomorrow's objective,” the former Real boss stated pre-match.
“We will keep trying to improve on what we have, and now it's time to face Real Madrid, a side that we have not been able to win against recently. That's the excitement that is driving us right now, we will go there with the same excitement and ambition as always.
“We are where we are because we've had a very good year, no one has gifted us anything. We are excited about where we are, we could improve on what we achieved last season.”
Sevilla never appear to have considered themselves worthy of winning La Liga.
Their last title in 1945/46 was the 15th season of the competition and they’ve had to make do with four runners-up finishes since, the last of which came in 56/57.
Lopetegui’s troops are in uncharted territory and the ex-Real boss will look to do the impossible against his old club. If that’s to happen, En-Nesyri will need to have his shooting boots on this time as the Andalusians seek to hold on to fading hopes of claiming a title that’s eluded them in 75 years.