Tuesday, October 26, 2021

How Monchi built a stunning Sevilla side that fell just short of a quadruple

Only Atletico Madrid have managed to break Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly at the top of La Liga since 2004, while no other side has come quite as close as Juande Ramos’ Sevilla.

They weren’t without silverware and, having been exhilarating at their very best, Ramos’ Sevilla side left an indelible mark on Spanish football. But they fell short of a truly historic achievement in 2007.

Sevilla’s only league title came in 1946. A second would have moved them ahead of Real Betis, who won their solitary title in 1935. What that would have meant in terms of bragging rights in one of the most vociferous city rivalries in European football can’t be overstated.

Not quite doing so can see them filed alongside football’s great nearly teams: Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup and Brazil in 1982.

Something had been building in Andalusia for quite some time before the club started to peak in the mid-00s. Had they never hit rock bottom at the turn of the century, they might never have become the force they did. It all started with Monchi.

Having spent the 1990s as the back-up goalkeeper for his first and only professional club, Monchi knew the club inside and out, once sharing the dressing room with Diego Maradona.

He played 20 games during Sevilla’s promotion-winning campaign from the Segunda Division in 1998-99, which included keeping clean sheets home and away in the play-offs against Villarreal, who would later enjoy the same status as nearly men a few years later.

Hanging up his gloves after ending a relatively unremarkable playing career on a satisfying note, Monchi was a spectator as Sevilla sunk like a stone in 1999-90, finishing dead last, 17 points adrift of safety.

Sevilla enjoyed 22 uninterrupted years in the top flight between 1975 and 1997 – and all but four post-war years – but they’d become a yo-yo club in the late 90s, and the task of coming back up in 2000-01 was a big one: Betis and Atletico had come down with them and looked better-placed to return.

That’s when Monchi comes back in, having been appointed as Sevilla’s director of football at the age of 31, tasked with overseeing a new direction amid severe financial difficulties.

Ramón Rodriguez Verdejo ‘Monchi’

Overhauling the club’s academy and putting in place a sophisticated, ahead-of-its-time global scouting network isn’t something that can be achieved overnight, but Monchi’s arrival nevertheless brought instant success.

With the experienced, well-travelled Joaquin Caparros arriving as the first-team coach, Sevilla achieved promotion at the first time of asking and finished eighth in their first season back in the top flight. Not once since have they finished outside the top half, again becoming one of La Liga’s most established institutions.

The sporting director’s diligent work behind the scenes those first few years back in the big time led to some wonderfully entertaining seasons at the Pizjuan under Caparros, and there was a real sense of a club in the ascendancy when they went to the Camp Nou in December 2002 and beat Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona 3-0.

Carlos Marchena, Jose Antonio Reyes, Jesuli, Jesus Navas and Sergio Ramos came up through the revamped academy, while Renato, Dani Alves and Julio Baptista arrived from Brazil, underlining the value of casting the net wider when it came to recruitment.

Baptista was in particularly sparkling form, scoring 25 goals in successive seasons for Sevilla as they registered back-to-back sixth-place finishes between 2003 and 2005.

Ramos, meanwhile, was starting to stake a reputation as one of the most promising youngsters in European football and eventually moved to Real Madrid for €27million in 2005 – a record fee for a Spanish defender.

Tal día como hoy… el Sevilla de Caparrós goleó al Barça en el Camp Nou en un partido en el que la afición dictaminó sentencia contra Gaspart.

For all that Monchi’s reputation is built upon a buy-low, sell-high ethos of sustainability and sensible judgement, Monchi knows full well that can only ever be part of the picture.

He was stood between the sticks at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan when a sell-out crowd feverishly celebrated the club’s return to La Liga, giving him the awareness that a healthy financial state should be a means to an end, giving the supporters something to believe in, rather than the end-goal in and of itself.

“No one takes a ‘what great economic results’ banner to the stadium,” he told The Guardian in 2016.

Throughout his time as sporting director, Sevilla have been acutely aware of their place in football’s food chain: that, ultimately, for their very best players there will be more alluring destinations, bigger salaries, a greater chance of glory.

But unlike at other clubs of a similar standing, whereby whatever happens on the pitch is seemingly a byproduct of just existing to keep bringing in funds (are you reading, Mike Ashley?), the genius of Monchi is that he’s managed to balance their selling club status with delivering plenty to celebrate.

Recruiting less established players and selling their biggest stars inevitably leads to a cycle of feast or fallow. Not every season during Monchi’s time at Sevilla has been one to remember, but several times everything has coalesced together into something special. At no point was this more true than in the mid-00s.

Caparros saw out his contract and left after a five-year stint, taking over at Deportivo La Coruna while they still had some of their old ‘Super Depor‘ sheen.

Baptista and Ramos departed for Real Madrid, but as ever Sevilla rolled with the punches and continued to progress regardless. Juande Ramos, a former Betis coach who had largely done good work wherever he’d been, arrived in the dugout.

The coach’s first season in charge saw further improvement; a fifth-place finish was their best in over a decade, while their points tally of 68 was their highest ever.

Sacked while Spurs were in the relegation zone in October 2007 has led to an unfair estimation of Ramos’ managerial nous in the UK. In his native Spain, he’s judged differently.

Not only is he the only coach to have delivered silverware at Tottenham in the last 20 years, but you only need to ask current boss Julen Lopetegui of his influence during their time together at Rayo Vallecano.

“He is the most intelligent I have played under, a genius at analysing the situation and then using the arms he has at his disposal to change the situation,” Lopetegui told The Guardian. “In each game he makes four or five tactical decisions which prove to be decisive.”

In his first season in charge, Sevilla only missed out on Champions League football by virtue of their head-to-head with Osasuna, but nevertheless ended the campaign with their first piece of major silverware in over 50 years by beating Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0 in the UEFA Cup final in Eindhoven.

Unlike the summer prior, Sevilla managed to keep hold of their best players, and now they had taste and experience of winning silverware. But they craved more.

The tone for the 2006-07 campaign was set in the UEFA Super Cup, taking on Barcelona at the Stade Louis II in Monaco. The first of three trophies that year, it could have been four.

They beat Frank Rijkaard’s Champions League holders 3-0: a statement victory over a side that featured a front three of Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o, with the likes of Xavi, Deco, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes behind them.

The scoreline said everything. Sevilla had taken another leap forward, while Barcelona were vulnerable.

Ronaldinho at his Ballon d’Or-winning best had helped fire the Catalan club to back-to-back La Liga titles and Champions League glory, but there looked to be a malaise amid reports he and Deco’s focus had switched to the city’s nightlife. Pep Guardiola’s revolution was still a couple of years away.

Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid, meanwhile, were in a transitional phase between Florentino Perez’s first Galacticos project and his second. This wasn’t a vintage side: Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo had left but Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso had yet to arrive.

Baptista had failed to maintain his Sevilla form in the Spanish capital and had been loaned out to Arsenal for the 2006-07 season, while Ramos found himself frequently getting sent off in those early years with Los Blancos. The talent was undoubtedly there, but he was far from the four-time Champions League-winning leader he is today.

There was a blossoming sense of opportunity for Sevilla to go and achieve something momentous and it didn’t look like they were going to let the opportunity pass. Winning 12 of their first 16 games, they were top at Christmas, staking a more than decent claim as the best team in Spain.

This was a serious team side, with quality from front-to-back. Not until Trent Alexander-Arnold emerged at Liverpool has a right-back been so integral to the way their team played as Alves at Sevilla. The Brazilian registered 11 assists that year; only Valencia’s David Villa managed more.

Described by AS as “three players in one: a central midfield playmaker with a winger’s soul who plays at full-back”, Alves popped up everywhere on the pitch and often found himself singlehandedly grabbing games by the scruff of the neck to drag Sevilla to wins.

Not least in a legendary performance against Barcelona in the March of that campaign, setting up Aleksandr Kerzhakov for Sevilla’s first before scoring the second himself with a stunning free-kick in a 2-1 comeback win, in which they’d been reduced to 10 men before the half-hour mark.

Alves might have provided the spark, but this was no one-man band.

Club captain Javi Navarro had a career blighted by injuries but he shook them off to play the best football of his career in his 30s, even after the departure of Pablo Alfaro, with whom he’d formed a five-year partnership in central defence.

Jesus Navas had become one of the best wingers in the country, reportedly turning down a move to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2006 due to a reluctance to leave his home city. His rapid pace was his standout quality, but he had skill and guile too.

Hot-headed Brazilan Luis Fabiano was a prime example of Monchi’s eye for a player, in spite of his struggles to perform at Porto.

Ending his debut campaign with two goals over Boro in the 2006 UEFA Cup final, Fabiano scaled further heights in the subsequent years, finishing as Pichichi runner-up in 2007-08 with 24 goals – more than the likes of Sergio Aguero, Raul, Villa, Messi, Eto’o, Diego Forlan and Ruud Van Nistlerooy.

But during 2006-07, the major goal threat came from Freddie Kanoute, who remains a Sevilla hero for his contributions in that era.

Never devastatingly prolific at West Ham or Tottenham, Monchi knew there was a player there and was proved right in a stunning fashion as the former Mali international scored 136 goals in 290 appearances across seven seasons.

A career-best tally of 21 in La Liga and 30 in all competitions came during that unforgettable year. The languid striker had developed a wonderful understanding the likes of Alves, Fabiano and Navas, combining a dead-eyed finishing ability with getting himself into the right spots time and again.

Beating Didier Drogba and Michael Essien to the 2007 African Player Of The Year award, Sevilla boasted one of the best strikers on the continent.

He scored home and away against former side Spurs in the UEFA Cup, which they won for a second successive season, beating Ernesto Valverde’s Espanyol on penalties in the final after mounting a second-leg comeback over Osasuna in the semi.

That was their third piece of silverware, having also won the Copa del Rey for the first time in over 50 years. Kanoute also scored the only goal of the game early on in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Getafe in that final.

But the domestic cup’s most memorable moment came in the quarter-final El Gran Derbi against Betis in which the second leg was abandoned after a bottle struck Juande Ramos and knocked him clean out following the Kanoute’s opener at the Benito Villamarin, which ultimately proved decisive over the two legs.

Competing so hard on three fronts may well have hindered their title challenge in the end, as they fell away in the second half of the campaign. There were still notable moments – the Spring comeback win over Barcelona kept them right in it and they won five of the last eight – but they didn’t quite make it over the line.

Six games prior to the end of the season, they’d led 1-0 at the Bernabeu at the hour mark but eventually lost 3-2 after being reduced to nine men, while Robinho was shown a second yellow after putting Madrid ahead.

In the end, Los Blancos won the title on the head-to-head record after finishing level on points with Barcelona. Sevilla, too, might have tied with both but dropped five points in their final two outings, drawing 0-0 at Mallorca and falling to a 0-1 home defeat to Villarreal.

Things fell away in wild fashion in a series of ill-tempered clashes – their final six games featured 45 bookings and five sendings off in total.

They certainly didn’t go out with a whimper. It just wouldn’t have been right to.

Can you name the top scorer for every La Liga season since 1990?
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