x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sevilla savvy can threaten big two

It is not only that Real Madrid were beaten for the first time this season, but that a genuine challenger has appeared which threatens the Barca-Madrid duopoly.

Real Madrid and city rivals Betis fans aside, Spain welcomed Sevilla's 2-1 victory over Kaka & co on Sunday night. It was not only that the free-spending giants were beaten for the first time this season, but that a genuine challenger has appeared which threatens the Barca-Madrid duopoly. Whisper it, but before Christmas the outcome of the Primera Liga could become as boringly predictable as the Scottish SPL if Barca and Real pulled away from the pack.

Sunday's game in Europe's hottest city was sublime. Seville, enjoying their best start to a league season since 1942, ripped into Madrid from the start and dominated the first half. This game always had great potential, with the two matches last season ending 4-3 to Sevilla in the Bernabéu and a 4-2 to Madrid in the Sanchez Pizjuan. It was Madrid's toughest test of the season so far and one which highlighted their deficiencies. Yes, their nine-goal top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo was missing with an ankle injury, but Madrid have a surfeit of talent and have constantly claimed they are not over reliant on the current world player of the year. Such statements looked flimsy as Madrid were exposed by a better-organised and better-motivated Sevilla side who out-fought and out-thought them.

Winger Jesus Navas was the game's star and scored the opening goal with a superb header. The 23-year-old exploited Madrid's left back Marcelo continuously. That Navas has not received international honours yet is not down to any flaws in his exceptional ability, more the acute homesickness which has prevented him representing his country. Thanks to intelligent dealing in the transfer market and the big-money departures of such players as Sergio Ramos, Jose Reyes and Daniel Alves, Sevilla are well funded, yet their ?100 million (Dh537m) annual budget is less that a quarter of Real's and Sunday's victory was a triumph for player development, intelligent acquisitions and astute coaching over brazen big-money buys.

Sevilla did not hack at Real like Almeria against Barcelona on Saturday night. I spoke to Barca's peerless Xavi after his close encounter with Almeria's Chico. He shrugged his shoulders and claimed that he had never been marked so aggressively in his career. "It was crazy, almost obsessive," he said. "He followed me everywhere even when I didn't have the ball or went to take a corner, he was there all the time. It drives you crazy being man-marked like that.

"Pep [Guardiola] told me to go out wide to open more space in the middle. I virtually disappeared from the game, it was pretty boring for me, but I guess we have to get used to it. It's a pity when a team comes just to close down at the back." That charge cannot be levelled at Sevilla. When tempers frayed in the first half, they had the muscle through Zokora and Renato to frustrate Real, but Sevilla's real strength was their attacking and varied wing play, which fed chances to Freddie Kanoute, Alvaro Negredo and Luis Fabiano.

A narrow win could have looked more convincing if it was not for the outstanding Iker Casillas in the Real goal, who somehow saved point blank from Navas before Renato headed Sevilla's second. Sevilla had another advantage - a home crowd so charged that it could power a high-speed train back to Madrid. Compare that to the crowds at Camp Nou and the Bernabéu who are often a booing burden. With Champions League commitments sure to stretch them, Sevilla may not win the league, but they've certainly brightened it up.

amitten@thenational.ae