Working on a shoestring budget and overshadowed by their gargantuan Catalan neighbours, Girona have turned heads in Spain this season with a thrilling first season in La Liga. Playing in the top flight for the first time in their 88-year history, the side have battled to a top-half position and remain with an outside chance of taking a spot in the Europa League for 2018-19.
It has been a fairytale for all involved with the club, but one man in particular has been responsible for the miraculous start to life at the top. And just like their Catalan compatriots, Girona have a Uruguayan sharpshooter to thank for their position.
Cristhian Stuani, 31, has been as big a hero for Girona this season as his countryman, Barcelona hitman Luis Suarez, is to the Camp Nou faithful. No less than 13 of his club's goals, almost a third, have come from the Uruguayan's boot, as he has outscored even Cristiano Ronaldo in the current season.
One of those strikes came in a shock 2-1 defeat of the Merengue back in October, arguably the biggest result in Girona's history. And having lost comfortably to Barcelona in the opening fixture, Stuani represents the club's best hope of pulling off another upset and showing the world that Uruguay have much more than just Suarez and Edinson Cavani when it comes to quality forwards. And while Stuani would be the first to admit he was not blessed with the outrageous talent of those two compatriots, he more than makes up for it with an incredible work rate and dedication that has won him many fans along the way.
Like Suarez and Cavani, Stuani grew up in the rural interior of Uruguay and had to overcome serious adversity on the way to the top. In Stuani's case, the setback came right at the start; after breaking through to the first team of Danubio as a teenager. The forward was forced to compete against none other than a young Cavani at a club famed for its production of talent, and was eventually off-loaded to second-tier Bella Vista in a severe blow to the budding star's ego.
Stuani bounced back, however. In 2007 and with Cavani aleady settling in to life in Palermo, the 21-year-old was recalled and picked up a fantastic haul of 19 goals in 15 games as Danubio finished second in that year's Apertura competition. That form prompted Reggina to swoop, but he did not enjoy his time in Italy: it was in Spain, where he excelled in a series of loan moves before finally making a permanent switch to Espanyol, that the player finally proved his talents as a scorer and provider, in the process forcing himself into the Uruguay team as versatile cover for any number of positions in the final third.
A switch to the Championship with Middlesbrough followed, and his 11 goals played a key part in the Teesiders' successful promotion bid – including a vital equaliser on the last day of the season which secured passage back to the top flight. And while his sole Premier League season was an overall disappointment, it did nothing to diminish his standing in La Liga as a host of clubs showed interest before he finally joined Girona for an undisclosed fee.
Confident with the ball at his feet and not afraid to try his luck on goal, Stuani's talents over the years have been aptly demonstrated. But what has made him such an asset over the years for both club and country is his admirable propensity for self-sacrifice, working incessantly and with intensity for the good of the team.
Whether he is asked to lead the line, as he is doing to such effect at Girona, or to drop back and aid the midfield as was the case with Espanyol and in the national team, you will never hear a word of complaint from this consummate professional.
“I think that the most important thing is work, sacrifice, humility and wanting to grow and improve every day,” he explained in an interview with La Liga's media team while still at Espanyol.
“I think that is what drives you to play well in the end, to have great seasons, and I hope I can continue in that vein and can keep saying the same for many years to come.”
If he can keep up that admirable philosophy, Stuani might give even mighty Barca pause for thought when he steps out at Camp Nou.