The morning after the night before – we’ve all been there. Was it all a dream? What went on? Did that really happen? For Girona supporters, as unlikely as it may have seemed following last week’s Copa del Rey defeat against Levante, Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Real Madrid really was a case of ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ after an incredibly-telling week both on and off the pitch for Machin’s men.
If the view from the afternoon looked somewhat uncertain on Saturday, by Sunday evening the clouds had well and truly parted and, at least in footballing terms, Girona were a much-needed ray of sunshine, making the darker skies of the day, the brighter skies of tomorrow. A much-needed respite, diversion if you like, away from the political occurrences that have dominated headlines in recent days and weeks.
The passion that runs throughout Catalonia has always been prevalent in Girona and for Pablo Machin’s side. Without such passion, it is fair to say Girona wouldn’t have made it to La Liga last season for the first time in their 87-year history. Without such passion, Girona wouldn’t have started the season as strongly as they have, competing in each and every game, while being somewhat unlucky against the likes of Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Leganes not to pick up more points with their League standing perhaps an unfair reflection of just how good they’ve been this season
Above all, however, without such passion, Girona would most definitely not have overcome the enormous challenge posed by Real Madrid and reigned supreme in a confident - yet comfortable - winning display.
Pre-match, it is always hard to tell just how well a team is going to perform. For all the confidence and optimism amongst a club’s fans, which Girona team turn up is a game of chance. Thankfully for their supportters, the same Girona that have, in many ways, exceeded initial expectations turned up on an poignant weekend and in front of a sell-out crowd at Montilivi.
From the first whistle, the Blanquivermell worked tremendously hard, combating the individual quality of a freely-roaming Isco and target-man Karim Benzema with the tenacity, courage and determination of the ever-reliable defensive pairing of Alex Granell and Aday Benitez – standout performers for the club as a defensive unit this season. Through a mixture of well-calculated yet no-nonsense tackling, intense pressing of Madrid’s attacking arsenal at every opportunity and a positional intelligence to effectively wipe out Cristiano Ronaldo’s influence on the game, unlike the current political situation Girona looked incredibly strong and stable in defence.
Pablo Maffeo rightly deserves praise for another impressive performance, yet in terms of influence, Pere Pons has equally made the most of the opportunity provided by Machín in sticking with the old guard, and his development, along with that of the Manchester City loanee, has been a joy to watch. While Maffeo stands out for both his vigour to man-mark and versatility to offer defensive and attacking ooptions Pons is the gel that keeps the Girona midfield so robust. Even against a team lauded for having one of the best midfield trios on the continent, Pere Pons looked every bit as comfortable as Casemiro in a holding role, and with such midfielders short in supply in the modern game, he is most definitely one to watch.
Its goals, however, that win games and although Cristhian Stuani has been the blockbuster name that’s contributed to so many of Girona’s goals this season, Portu is equally as important in recent weeks as an unlikely threat. For what Portu lacks in finishing to Stuani, he has proved to be a far-more mobile option up top, which not only helps build attacks from midfield but can also lead to him finishing off moves thanks to his clever running off the ball.
Sunday’s victory, however, was much more than individual brilliance. Instead, it was a bold, courageous and defiant team effort, which rightly deserves the praise it is receiving. From the first to last whistle, Girona - as they have done time and time again - illustrated that they’re simply not in La Liga to make up the numbers. Ranging from the two attempts that hit the woodwork to the last-ditch Maffeo tackle to restrict Cristiano Ronaldo from getting a shot on goal in the dying embers of the match, the Catalans continue to stand out as something different to the new boys before them.
From back to front, Machín has shown that a squad overhaul isn’t always what’s needed to ensure survival. In spite of City’s loanees, a tried-and-tested formula has been vital for Girona and was at the centre of Madrid’s undoing.