By Alan Feehely l @azulfeehely
On a warm June night in an empty Sánchez-Pizjuán, a resolute Sevilla shut out league leaders Barcelona in a well-matched encounter. Sevilla began the game on a comfortable footing, looking to consolidate their place in third, and Barcelona seeking to continue their winning streak and maintain their lead at the top of La Liga.
Real Madrid had played the night before, beating Valencia 3-0 at the Alfredo Di Stéfano to close the gap to their great Catalan rivals to just two points. Even more than the result, the nature of Madrid’s performance impressed – they looked fit, strong, and full of goals. Their subsequent victory at Real Sociedad on Sunday evening meant they went top, with a superior head-to-head record giving them the advantage in a close title race.
That result was important for Sevilla too, albeit for different reasons. La Real are one of a clutch of teams competing with them for the third and fourth spots and all-important Champions League qualification, alongside Atlético Madrid, Getafe, and Villarreal. Atleti, fresh off a 5-0 thumping of Osasuna on Wednesday evening, went level with Sevilla after beating Valladolid on Saturday, and with European football so integral to their business model, the stakes are particularly high.
The major talking point before Friday evening’s tie in Seville, however, was Barcelona coach Quique Setién’s preference for Martin Braithwaite ahead of Antoine Griezmann, confirming recent rumours that the winter signing from Leganés has usurped his French teammate in the Camp Nou hierarchy.
The visiting side started strongly, controlling play and asserting themselves, but the first chance of the evening was Sevilla’s. A free-kick swung in from the left side fell to Jules Koundé just outside the box, but the 21-year-old fired just wide.
Barcelona continued to dominate, however, with the hosts unable to gain a foothold. Lionel Messi saw his well-struck free-kick headed over the bar by Koundé, who saved the blushes of a scrambling Tomáš Vaclík, before ex-Sevilla midfielder Ivan Rakitić snatched his effort just wide. Neither side could make that pivotal breakthrough.
By the half-hour mark, things began to shift. Barcelona’s play lost some of its zip while the hosts began to grow in confidence. Joan Jordán was performing well in midfield, winning important battles that disrupted the Catalans’ momentum and changed the tide of the game. On the stroke of half-time, a frustrated Messi pushed Diego Carlos to the ground, sparking a minor fracas between the two teams and sending them into the break with tensions high.
Éver Banega came on for Óliver Torres at half-time, serving as an important outlet to retain possession, allow Fernando to drop deeper to become a third centre-back and release full-backs Jesús Navas and Sergio Reguilón down each flank. It was a pivotal tactical decision that Barcelona didn’t respond to, and so the game opened up.
Navas took a quick free-kick to find the in-form Lucas Ocampos, who turned and drew a fine save from Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-André Ter Stegen. Moments later, Diego Carlos sent an accurate long ball to Munir down the left side, who fired on goal only to be stopped by Ter Stegen.
Messi had another free-kick tipped over the bar as his side pushed for an important winner, with the experienced members of their squad visibly frustrated and their inexperienced counterparts visibly panicked. In the midst of it all, Sevilla proved resolute in defence, stepping forward when needed to cut out nascent attacks while maintaining a counter-attacking threat.
Chances began to come as the game neared its end. Banega played a clipped pass to release Ocampos out the right, who matched Nélson Semedo for pace before seeing his effort well-held by Ter Stegen. Minutes later, Jordi Alba broke down the other end to square for Luis Suárez, whose first time effort flew over the bar.
Gerard Piqué became an auxiliary forward in the game’s dying moments, personifying the desperation Barcelona felt in their quest for three points. By committing so many numbers forward they exposed themselves defensively, and nearly paid for it in additional time. Youssef En-Nesyri won the ball in the box before seeing it spill to Reguilón, who should have done better with the tame resulting effort and spurned a glorious chance.
“It’s going to be very difficult to win this league,” a despondent Piqué admitted immediately post-match. “From what I’ve seen recently, Real Madrid aren’t going to lose a lot of points.” His side certainly didn’t look comfortable. Too reliant on Messi, with games coming thick and fast they’re going to need others in the squad to share his heavy load, starting against Athletic Club on Tuesday.
Sevilla remain in a strong position for a Champions League spot after Monday night’s draw at Villarreal – they saw their clash with Barcelona as a point gained but for the visitors, it could prove costly come the end of the season.