Valencia and Sevilla find themselves in a battle against relegation
Spanish football is struggling. Just over a decade ago, it was at its height; the national team had come off the back of defending their European Championship, sandwiching a maiden World Cup success, and at club level, Barcelona were performing at levels which propelled them into a debate over the best club sides ever.
The two successes went hand in hand as both sides perfected a style of football that revolutionised the game. Tiki-taka became the way to play, and remnants of it are still clear today, even if things have evolved further and changed once again. Barca won three Champions league titles in six years, too, before Real Madrid went on to win four in five a few years later. All the while, Sevilla were dominating the Europa League scene, too, winning it four times in six years. Villarreal and Atletico Madrid have also won it since 2010. No country has enjoyed such a stronghold on world football before or since; it is doubtful anyone will ever again.
But these days things are different, mainly stemming from a financial perspective. Barcelona have resorted to cashing in on parts of their own club to avoid financial ruin – a bigger gamble than anyone is willing to truly admit right now – just a couple of years after seeing their greatest ever player leave because they couldn’t afford his wages without breaching La Liga rules. Xavi’s charges are top of the league at the moment but feels as though the club is collectively sitting on a rock, arms and legs folded, eyes shut, fingers in ears humming to themselves in full denial.
Real Madrid are European champions, and they seem to have a plan in the transfer market which will maintain their place at the top. But their continued push for the European Super League, alongside Barcelona, shows that they are looking to stack the deck in their favour. They may say, perhaps with good reason, that the money in the Premier League gives English clubs a hefty advantage. But ripping up the entire fabric of European football doesn’t seem like a good way to deal with that.
With both the top clubs not the forces they once were, and Atletico crashing out of the Champions League in embarrassment, it is an indictment of Spain’s top clubs really struggling. Yet, that is not even half of it. Sevilla, the same side that has dominated Europe’s secondary club competition for a decade, are in serious danger of getting relegated this season, for the first time since 2001. What’s worse, they could easily be joined by Valencia, arguably Spain’s third biggest club.
Jorge Sampaoli was sacked this week at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. The former Argentina and Chile boss replaced Julen Lopetegui in October; the Spaniard, who has since moved on to Wolves, lost five of his final eight games. Sampaoli, who has a big reputation as a disciple of fabled coach Marcelo Bielsa, never arrested the slide.
But the entire club is in a serious malaise; the sales of Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos left gaping holes at the back, whereas goals have been a real problem. Sevilla, three points above the relegation zone in 14th, have scored 29 goals this term, fewer than two of the bottom four sides, while conceding 42, the same amount as 17th placed Espanyol and just three fewer than Almería in 19th.
The secret to Sevilla’s success over recent years has been the skill in the market of director of football Monchi. Selling on the likes of Carlos and Kounde was part of the model because they would be replaced by better value alternatives. That simply hasn’t happened this summer; defender Tanguy Nianzou, signed from Bayern Munich, is only 20 so needs time to settle. Adnan Januzaj, who joined on a free transfer from Real Sociedad, was shipped on loan to Istanbul Basaksehir after making just two appearances. Isco, another free transfer, left early by having his contract cancelled.
And then there’s Valencia, arguably a more historic club and in even deeper trouble, looking to avoid Segunda football for the first time in 36 years. It has been a much tougher decade for them, though; crowned La Liga champions in 2004 under Rafael Benitez, they were regulars in the Champions League and most commonly, as time went on, the third best team in Spain behind Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But fans grew restless with the lack of challenging, while the sales of their best players David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata saw them hit their ceiling. Since a takeover by businessman Peter Lim in 2014, they have had their moments, competing in Europe and attempting to rebuild having spent money, but woeful mismanagement, typified by a short and disastrous spell under Gary Neville, whom Lim owns a stake in Salford City alongside, are coming home to roost.
Valencia are in the bottom three, Sevilla are desperately scrapping to avoid joining them. Sampaoli’s replacement is Jose Luis Mendilibar, a 62-year-old journeyman who has worked for Alaves, Eibar and others in recent years. He may keep them up, but he doesn’t have the CV to suggest he can do much more than that. But it’s a sign of the times.
Barcelona’s predicament has taken the headlines, but the real barometer of Spanish football’s deep-rooted problems could be unfolding in real time. Not one, but two huge clubs could fall out of the top flight, and that would be a desperate situation.