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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Leganes offer a blueprint for Girona to follow in La Liga

Wealthy Girona, population 100,000, is not a big football city, but it now has a team who have enjoyed an admirable first season in Spain’s top flight and who sit 10th, only five points off a European spot

Girona's Uruguayan Cristhian Stuani celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Spanish league match against Atletico Madrid at the Montilivi in Girona on August 19, 2017. Girona are the only team in Spain to have scored two goals against Atletico this season. Pau Barrena / AFP
Girona's Uruguayan Cristhian Stuani celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Spanish league match against Atletico Madrid at the Montilivi in Girona on August 19, 2017. Girona are the only team in Spain to have scored two goals against Atletico this season. Pau Barrena / AFP

When Girona and Leganes last met in a league game in 2016, it was in front of only 3,859 fans, despite both clubs pushing for promotion to the Primera Liga.

Wealthy Girona, population 100,000, is not a big football city, but it now has a team who have enjoyed an admirable first season in Spain’s top flight and who sit 10th, only five points off a European spot.

They grabbed attention immediately in their first La Liga outing by putting two goals past Atletico Madrid to achieve a creditable draw. No other team has scored twice against Atletico in the league all season.

Girona host fellow mid-table side Leganes on Friday, another new side to La Liga, and the crowd will be closer to this season’s respectable average of 10,500. Promotion last season saw Girona build two new temporary stands to boost the capacity of their Montilivi home to 13,500, a level which has been reached twice this season with the visits of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Barca won 3-0. Real Madrid, however, were defeated in Girona’s greatest ever result on October 28, 2017, one Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s nationalist president and Girona resident, praised effusively, a victory for a small Catalan team against the club long considered to be a face of the Spanish state. A day later, his office was suspended.

Girona are now part of the City Football Group, the of Manchester City. The holding company of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, owns 44 per cent of Girona. Pep Guardiola’s brother, Pere, owns another 44 per cent. La Liga president Javier Tebas accused City of “cooking the books” by undervaluing the players they had loaned to Girona, a claim City deny.

The link-up clearly aids Girona, who used City’s training facilities in pre-season. City players on loan at the club include 19-year-old Brazilian midfielder Douglas Luiz, a £10.7 million (Dh55m) signing from Vasco da Gama last July who was immediately loaned to Girona.

Four of the seven loan players on Girona's books are from City; the others are Spaniards Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia, both 20, and Nigerian forward Olarenwaju Kayode, 24.

Girona also have former Barca defender Marc Muniesa on loan from City's Premier League rivals Stoke City.

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Maffeo, who played well for City against Manchester United in the League Cup at Old Trafford last season, is the only one who would be classed as a first-team player. The defender did as good a job as anyone of marking Lionel Messi this term.

Girona were doing well before City's investment, too. They reached the play-offs in three of the four previous seasons. They have prospered since promotion and the experienced Uruguayan striker Christian Stuani, 31, is their top scorer with 12 league goals, more than any Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid player this term.

Two players usually play behind Stuaini in a 3-4-2-1 which has been effective after changing from a 3-5-2 system last season.

Cristian "Portu" Portugues, who came through Valencia’s youth system, has scored eight league goals while Borja Garcia, 27, a product of Real Madrid’s B team, plays just behind the big front man. Both were key players in Girona’s promotion season and the club have stuck with a core from that side, which also included three locally-born central midfielders in Pere Pons, Alex Granell and Eloi Amagat, although the latter has yet to feature for the club in La Liga. Catalonia produces good footballers and Girona have enough local players on their books to make it feel like a home-grown effort. The left-back/winger Johan Mijika, 25, may be Colombian rather than Catalan, but he has been superb after signing from Rayo Vallecano.

Girona have retained their promotion buzz as they play the giants of Spanish football for the first time. Over half their match-going fans are newcomers in a city where Barcelona have long been the best-supported side. But that support can solidify as they maintain their top-flight status under manager Pablo Machin, who has been at Girona since 2014 after leaving Barcelona’s B team.

Leganes, who await Girona, also secured a memorable result against Real Madrid this season, knocking Zinedine Zidane's side out of the Copa del Rey. Leganes are a great example for their opponents, after managing to stay up last season and sitting comfortably in 12th this. Not that they will be made to feel comfortable in Girona.

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