Sevilla had a busy summer. Long-term boss Unai Emery departed for a new challenge with Paris Saint-Germain, while club transfer guru Monchi ensured that new coach Jorge Sampaoli was armed with whatever personnel he thought he needed for a smooth start at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to equal Unai Emery’s success, but what I do know is that we’ll work in a way to entertain fans,” Sampaoli announced at his presentation many moons ago. “Love of the club’s colours and the joy of playing football for the love of the game. That’s what we’re going to try and convey.”
10 games into the La Liga season, not only have Sevilla managed to meet his basal promise of entertainment, but Los Nervionenses find themselves in fourth place – merely three points off the title pace and one point shy of this weekend’s opposition Barcelona. Sampaoli has even been questioned on the topic of the title race.
Despite the loss of star striker Kevin Gameiro to Atletico Madrid during the summer, Sevilla’s new recruits have all mucked in and made themselves a tough proposition to beat.
While it is possible to look at some squads in the Spanish top-flight and recognise one or two key threats to cut off in order to stifle them, Sampaoli’s team is packed with talent and arguably without an outstanding figure. Rather than having one man to grab the all-important goals, this season they have been more roundly shared, with Luciano Vietto, Pablo Sarabia, Wissam Ben Yedder, Franco Vazquez and Samir Nasri – all of whom were brought in over the summer – netting two goals or more so far in La Liga.
“We want to be able to compete with anyone. We know that this is a successful squad and we have to convey that to new signings and current players,” Sampaoli reasoned before the season began. “We’re going to put together a good squad that allows us to play our game.”
The squad, the collective, has trumped the individual. When Barcelona come to Seville, they will hope for Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to hold the keys to success, for playmaker Sergio Busquets to play a vital role, and for Gerard Pique to miraculously recover from injury in time.
In all likelihood, Barca will be without first-choice left-back Jordi Alba and Pique for the away trip, despite the latter being rumoured to want to rush back to fitness in time to walk out at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Andres Iniesta will be unavailable in midfield, with all three absentees weakening Enrique’s side considerably.
Lucas Digne will be given a tough test at left-back, while Javier Mascherano will be asked to continue in the heart of the defence, where he hasn’t had the most convincing of seasons. Rafinha, boasting an impressive goalscoring record of five goals in seven games, should feature in midfield.
In recent weeks the old adage of Sergio Busquets needing to play well for his team to impress has reared its head. Against Granada, when Enrique rested the Spain international, three points were scraped due to Lucas Alcaraz’s men holding no real threat going forward in response. In order to silence Sevilla, however, even with Busquets back involved, Barca’s approach might have to be entirely different.
“It’s a different Sevilla with Sampaoli’s philosophy. They were already a dangerous team, but now they are even more dangerous,” Enrique warned ahead of his side’s Super Cup double header against Los Nervionenses back in August.
Luis Enrique set up his side to press high and try and smother Sevilla during those fixtures that preceded the league season. Even Busquets lumbered out to help restrict the space required for Sevilla to play quickly from their own half into the midfield third, with it evident that the visitors will be scared this Sunday for Sampaoli’s men to do real damage on the offensive.
Barca already slumped to a disappointing 3-1 Champions League away loss against Manchester City during the week – and a collapse wouldn’t be out of the question versus Sevilla either. Pique has held Enrique’s defence together at times over the last year, with Busquets not brimming with the confidence required to help his back four play their way out of Sevilla’s intense pressing.
By altering their playing style in the Super Cup, Barcelona have already shown that they are worried by Sampaoli’s team, with their latest clash occurring on Sevilla’s turf, a ground where the hosts have won all five games played in La Liga this campaign. As the weeks go by, Sevilla continue to gel together and develop a further understanding of their coach’s philosophy, with their performance during their 4-0 Champions League win over Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday showcasing the fluid and dangerous end goal.
They might not have quite reached their peak yet, given that Sevilla have scored merely 18 goals in 10 league games – with six of those coming against Espanyol – but the signs are there, it is coming. “Undoubtedly I am a person who is tremendously passionate about attacking,” Sampaoli has said.
Facing a Barcelona side who have lost two of their last three competitive away games, who are missing both key players and a touch of their usual swagger, Sevilla should be set to do exactly that. Sampaoli might smell blood, and Gerard Pique won’t be able to help bandage Barca’s wounds.