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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Real Betis, led by evergreen Joaquin, travel to Real Madrid full of belief

Despite a tough run of games at the start of the season, Seville's best-supported club are on an upward trajectory and there is a feeling of optimism ahead of the trip to the Bernabeu.

Joaquin Sanchez, left, and Sergio Leon, right are two reasons why the feel-good factor is coming back to Real Betis. Jose Manuel Vidal / EPA
Joaquin Sanchez, left, and Sergio Leon, right are two reasons why the feel-good factor is coming back to Real Betis. Jose Manuel Vidal / EPA

Real Betis hoped for an easier start to the season, but just like last term, they were sent to Barcelona for their first game. Just like last season, they were hammered.

Their second away game was at Villarreal, where they lost 3-1 after playing well and taking the lead. Their third, on Wednesday night, is at Real Madrid. That’s visits to three of the top four teams in Spain last season in their first three away matches. Their fourth is at Real Sociedad, who have won their opening three games.

Betis did win both their home games against Celta Vigo and Deportivo and sit 12th, better than 15th last year when they worked through three different managers. They also lost Dani Ceballos to Madrid, yet there are significant reasons for optimism on the south side of Seville.

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Joaquin Sanchez, their 36-year-old captain, is playing with the form which won him the first of 51 Spain caps in the 2000s. He’s back home where he’s loved after nine years away with Valencia, Malaga and Fiorentina. The veteran right winger is scoring, making goals and beating opponents to delight fans. He scored both against Deportivo.

Joaquin, a hero at Betis and product of their youth system, is also the key man in the dressing room, firing his teammates up before matches and even driving the team bus. Confidence is high under new manager Quique Setian, whose football was so impressive at Las Palmas until his last six months there.

“We’ll go to the Bernabeu with a plan and we will be fearless," Joaquin said. "With all due respect to Real Madrid we don’t fear anybody.”

They lost the equivalent fixture 1-6 last season, but Betis believe. Their fans have belief, too. Their Benito Villamarin stadium was developed in time for this season, with a new south stand boosting the capacity to 61,000, the third biggest in Spain after Camp Nou, the Bernabéu and Atletico’s splendid new Wanda Metropolitano.

The seats were replaced to create a green, triple-tiered cauldron. Fans are loud, season ticket numbers have nudged past 50,000, the highest in the club’s history.

While neighbours Sevilla haven’t stopped winning trophies in the last decade, Betis only have two in their entire history, a 1935 league title and two Copa del Rey wins in 1977 and 2005. Joaquin got married as part of the celebrations which followed, with the entire Betis team present.

Sevilla’s €150 million (Dh660m) budget is more than twice the €70m Betis have for this season, yet Betis were still the best-supported team in Spain’s fourth biggest city last season.

They are likely to be the fourth best supported team in Spain this year and it’s not only Joaquin, who wanted to be a bull fighter as a child, who is impressing.

Sergio Leon, a well-travelled forward who was at Betis as a youngster, is back home in Andalusia. His arrival is helping Betis overcome the departure of legendary striker Ruben Castro, who went to China. Another journeyed winger, the Mexican Andres Guardado, joined from PSV Eindhoven and is playing well.

In defence, the Moroccan Zouhar Feddal, who arrived in the close season from Alaves, looks solid. Fellow north African, Ryad Boudebouz, who moved from Montpellier, has looked in the mould of his compatriot Riyad Mahrez in the few minutes he’s played so far.

Having drawn their opening two home league games against Valencian teams Valencia and Levante, Madrid are under serious pressure to win. Zinedine Zidane’s side enjoyed a convincing 3-1 win at Real Sociedad and have the capability to outclass any team on the planet.

Betis won’t be measured by how they do against Madrid, but by the time the first Sevilla derby comes around in January, there are genuine hopes that they can be pushing on for a top six-finish. With their leader Joaquin playing so well, that could be well within their sights.

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