There was a moment late on Sunday night when the camera closed in on Luuk de Jong which seemed to say something about trust and team, and what they’re building together at Sevilla. He had scored at the Camp Nou, as he had done against Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Real Betis, Inter and Manchester United, but having opened the scoring inside eight minutes the ball had been back in play just 41 seconds when Philippe Coutinho equalised. Now, withdrawn six minutes from the end of an exhausting evening, the former Newcastle striker sat in the stands gesturing for his teammates to remain calm in the final moments of a 1-1 draw against Barcelona.
Below him on the touchline, assistant manager Pablo Sanz was doing the same. And above them both, Julen Lopetegui, buds in ears, phone in hand, hoped that this time it wouldn’t slip away. All the players had to do was dare. Think, have faith, stick to the plan – as if that was easy. “Maybe we feared losing, so we didn’t handle the last five minutes well,” Sevilla’s manager admitted afterwards, but then the other 85 had been a different matter and not only was it brief it was also natural. Besides, in the end, Sevilla were still standing. And that’s not often the case at the Camp Nou. This was just their third point from the last 54 available here.
A year ago almost to the day, Sevilla came to the Camp Nou, battered Barcelona and lost 4-0. “We didn’t deserve that,” Lopetegui said then and they wouldn’t have deserved to lose now either, but he knew that was no guarantee. You have to go back to 2002 for their last victory there, back when nobody had heard of the Europa League let alone won six of them, Pablo Alfaro, Vinny Samways did too and a teenager called Daniel Alves da Silva couldn’t get in the squad. In 17 visits Sevilla hadn’t won; they had only even drawn twice. This was Barcelona, after all; the team, Sevilla president Pepe Castro said pre-game, “with a player from another planet”. An extra-terrestrial with a nasty habit of hitting you when you think you’ve got away with it, beating you on his own.
Sevilla were under pressure, exposed for the first time. Legs were tired, Ivan Rakitic had departed, applauded off by former team-mate Ousmane Dembélé. Joan Jordán, Suso, and De Jong had joined him, as had Lucas Ocampos. From the stands they watched Sevilla get their first yellow card in the 87th minute. In the 90th, Bono saved from Francisco Trincão. In the 91st, there was a penalty shout for Messi, tripped by Diego Carlos. And in the 93rd, Messi put a shot over. And then, in the 95th, as Messi collected the ball once more, the final whistle went. Sevilla had escaped with a draw.
So had Barcelona – and that was the point.
Following a 4-0 victory over Villarreal and a 3-0 win at Celta Vigo, there was feeling something was building at Barcelona: they were quicker, more organised, harder working, just better. This would be the first real opportunity to measure how much better they were. “The Test” one front page called it. By the end of a game in which their outstanding player was stand-in centre back Ronald Araújo, doubts remained: about the narrow shape, how they had tired, whether the press can be sustained, the circulation of the ball, the role of Antoine Griezmann, and Messi too. None of which should surprise. After all, as Philippe Coutinho insisted: “this has only just started”.
Sevilla, by contrast, have consolidated. “Sevilla put the brakes on Barcelona”, “Sevilla stop Barcelona”, “Sevilla hold Barcelona”, ran the headlines, when they should probably have been the other way around, offering reasons for Ronald Koeman to be happy and Lopetegui to be happier. As El Mundo put it: “knocking down this Sevilla side is a titanic task for which this Barcelona team, despite its improvement, is not ready yet.” In El País, Ramon Besa noted: “In the end, the thing to praise is that Barcelona didn’t lose to this Sevilla.”
The night that was all set up to decide if Barcelona were really any good showed that Sevilla certainly are. Just ask Barcelona. Afterwards, Coutinho immediately highlighted how hard Sevilla had made it to play inside. Koeman called them an equipazo, a great team: “a strong, physical side with great players who pressed us really well.” And Barcelona’s spokesman Guillermo Amor was rattling off the Ãsimos: Sevilla were extremely hard, extremely good, and extremely complete.
“We produced a great performance; we maybe even deserved to win,” Sevilla president Castro said. “We saw a great Sevilla side,” Bono said. They would say that perhaps, but when Jules Koundé insisted “I’m a bit disappointed”, he was telling the truth. He was also right. He in particular was superb, the perfect portrait not just of sporting director Monchi’s eye for a player but also his ability to build an ecosystem in which he thrives. In front of him, Fernando was impenetrable. Jordan was everywhere. And while Jesús Navas was at fault for the Barcelona goal, as Castro insisted: “He gives us so much that you forgive him everything.” At 34, he helped keep 17-year-old Ansu Fati quiet. All over the pitch they impressed: Suso, Ocampos, Jordan, De Jong.
Sevilla had more shots than Barcelona (13 to 12) and, for long spells, more possession too. They had played as equals, showing that “their knees don’t tremble when faced by a big opponent” in Diario De Sevilla’s words. Relentless, they pressed so high that at times Barcelona could barely get out of the six-yard box let alone the penalty area. Described by Sport as “vibrant, daring, choral, with the tactical precision of a surgeon”, if they lacked anything, Jordan said, “it was a little clarity high up the pitch.” That’s not easy at this many RPM, and there have been times when they have failed to kill games off, but that too is improving. On Monday they added another striker to the squad, Oussami Idrissi.
There is a collective certainty, a strength, about them that is remarkable. A growing belief expressed in De Jong’s gesture: we’ve got this. It’s been building: this was virtually a new team last summer; a year on, it’s a settled one, the identity clear. Although Sergio Reguilón and Éver Banega departed in the summer, and while both are big losses, they were replaced quickly. “It’s like Rakitic has never been away,” Jordan says. Depth has been added to the squad too and there is variety: this is a team that can control or counter. No one in Spain transmits such a sense of security right now.
At last week’s Champions League draw, Sevilla were drawn against Krasnodar, returning Julen Lopetegui back to the city where he was sent home from the Spain squad, the hardest days of his career, setting him up for what felt like an inevitably brief and bitter spell with Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. His appointment at Sevilla last summer wasn’t universally popular. And even as late as March, many were still not sure: there were even some fans who whistled. But in their absence, hearts have grown fonder, his redemption complete.
Lopetegui has come a long way. As he returned home to Asteasu in August, they were waiting for him. There was applause, a band playing the Sevilla anthem, a feast laid on, a handpainted sign declaring “beti zutaz harro”: always proud of you in Basque. His father, the best stone lifter in Euskadi, embraced the son who had just won the Europa League, his first trophy as a coach; who had won the derby, twice; and returned Sevilla to the Champions League too.
Together, Sevilla have constructed a team with the ambition to go to the Camp Nou and get a result as good as any in almost twenty years but feel like it was not enough. And not because of one performance, but lots of them. They have lost just once in twenty-six games going back to February – and that was in extra time against Bayern Munich, after Youssef En-Nesyri had missed a wonderful opportunity to win it. No one wants to say so, but there’s a feeling something good is building. Last night the president avoided title talk but insisted that Sevilla have to be there ready if the rest slip up.
“We did great work today, we competed very well and we came to win. We dominated them at times, overpowering them, and we’re left with a bittersweet taste; I feel like we could have come away with a win,” Jordan said. “It’s a cliche but it’s true: we’ll go game by game and there’s hope for the season ahead. We have a spectacular squad. You look at our bench and it’s brutal. It’s lovely to see us play.”