Granada enjoying the dream as they mix it with the heavyweights in Spain
Coach Diego Martinez staying grounded but the fans and players are relishing unlikely success
Should the players and staff of Granada wake up on Friday morning back at the top of La Liga, one or two will quietly, privately, dare to nourish a dream. Champions League football, perhaps, at Los Carmenes, for the first time. Or a taste, at least, of the Europa League.
The manager, Diego Martinez, insists he will have no such thoughts. What he would note, instead, is that Granada, with a draw or better at Getafe, will have reached a higher points total after 11 games of the Spanish season than they collected in the entire campaign the last time they were in the top division, in 2016-17, when they finished 20th of 20, with only 20 points.
Their first 20 points of 2019-20 have already delivered a sharp rebuke to the laws of gravity, which tug hard in a league where all but one of the last 15 titles have belonged either to Barcelona or Real Madrid. Those superheavyweights were supposed to meet one another on Saturday, the fixture postponed because of the political unrest in Catalonia. Into the gap sneaked modest Granada, their 1-0 win over Real Betis leaving them to enjoy the view from the summit of la Liga for two blissful days, until Barca’s victory over Valladolid on Tuesday. Victory at Getafe would return the Cinderellas to first place.
Not since 1973 had Granada sat at the top of la Liga. Never have the club enjoyed that status at such a late stage in the season as matchday 10. “You know we don’t look at the table,” Martinez thought it appropriate to say. “We just look at the 20 points. And 20 points from 10 games is terrific.” And then he looked down the league, at his priority target: “Who knows how many points will mean safety from relegation?”
Martinez knows all the other numbers around Granada point them to La Liga’s bottom three. Of Spain’s current top-flight clubs, only Valladolid and Mallorca have salary caps set lower than Granada’s; only Valladolid, Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao spent less than Granada on new signings in the summer. Their total outlay? €7.25m (Dh 29m), or, to put it in another currency, about one 16th of an Antoine Griezmann. Griezmann, who left Atletico Madrid for Barcelona for €120m in the summer in pursuit of trophies, was among the stars humbled at Los Carmenes last month when cut-price Granada beat the Spanish champions 2-0.
Scorer of the second goal that day was Alvaro Vadillo, the 25-year-old winger. The matchwinner on Sunday against Betis, Vadillo will, fitness permitting, play his 50th match for Granada this evening and rather like his club, he has packed plenty of ups and downs into the last few years. He began at Betis and made his Liga debut as a 16-year-old in 2011 and had endured two relegations by the age of 23, one with Betis, one with Huesca. When he joined Granada in the summer of 2018, he would have forgiven for stepping gingerly over the threshold.
The club had dropped out of the top division a year earlier, in chaotic circumstances. Three different head coaches came and went in 2016-17, the last of them Tony Adams, the former England captain and a boss with very limited experience in the role of first-team coach. They conceded 82 goals in their 38 games, used 35 players that season, drawn from a squad in which 17 different nationalities were represented and which often felt like an airport transit hall. Instability was ingrained. Granada had only recently been sold by the Pozzo family, who had controlling interests in Watford and Udinese, and regularly shifted players between the three clubs.
Jiang Lizhang, a Chinese entrepreneur, bought Granada from the Pozzos, and it has taken some three years to have them close to the shape he wanted, with a core of driven young players like Vadillo, supplemented by more worldly footballers like the striker Roberto Soldado and the French midfielder Maxime Gonalons to help negotiate a division new to many.
There have some been loose days, like the 4-4 draw with Villarreal, and a 4-2 loss at Real Madrid, but Granada have an impressive clarity about their football, for which much credit goes to Martinez. The head coach is, at 38, the youngest in Spain’s top flight, served part of his apprenticeship working with Unai Emery, now of Arsenal, at Sevilla, and, in an interview with El Mundo, listed where and for what he looks for inspiration: “An eclectic mix,” he said, “the dynamism of Klopp, the systems used by Guardiola, the competitiveness of Simeone, the calm of Valverde.” Like all of them, he now knows how it feels to be top of his league.
Updated: October 31, 2019 08:09 AM