Quite how important Sevilla’s 1-0 win against Athletic Bilbao was in the context of La Liga’s title race will only become clear in May, but on Thursday night there was an inescapable feeling at the Rámon Sánchez-Pizjuán that Jorge Sampaoli’s side may well have what it takes to mount a serious challenge to Real Madrid and Barcelona for the title.
In what was an impromptu first audition for the soon-to-be vacant Barcelona job – the day after Luis Enrique’s announcement that he will leave the club at the end of the season – the two front runners for the post in Jorge Sampaoli and Ernesto Valverde oversaw their sides play out a frenetic 90 minutes, in which Sampaoli’s depleted Sevilla outfit survived one of the best away performances seen at the Sánchez-Pizjuán this season unscathed.
“It was a very tough game and we weren’t comfortable,” said Sampaoli, after his side held on to the lead provided by Vicente Iborra’s 15th-minute strike. “But it’s a result that strengthens us for what’s to come. We’ve played a lot of games and the pressure to stay up there at the top requires a lot of effort.”
Athletic provided a thorough examination of Sevilla’s defence and were unlucky to not convert any of their 14 chances, with the best of them coming when Raúl García hit the post with a looping header midway through the first half.
Despite missing two key components of their defensive set up in Steven NZonzi and Nico Pareja through suspension, Sevilla were able to see out the game with a below-par performance to record a fifth consecutive win in all competitions.
Sampaoli’s side have now come back to win six of the eight matches in which they have conceded first in La Liga this season, and resilience is becoming a trait of a side that must now be taken seriously as contenders for the league title.
Should they pull it off, and progress to the latter stages of the Champions League, it would be no surprise to see Sampaoli unveiled at the Camp Nou when Enrique leaves. But the Argentine was coy in his response to speculation in his post-match press conference.
“I don’t know if they’ve mentioned me as a candidate but we’ve got a job to do here,” said the 56-year-old. “There’s no answer [to the speculation] because the question doesn’t exist.”
— Dan O’Toole (@danotoole96) March 2, 2017
If it doesn’t exist now, then the chances are that it will fairly soon.
One of the many Sevilla Supporters Clubs that exist wrote a letter to their contemporaries at Leicester City ahead of first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie, in which they expressed their hope to one day defy the odds themselves and win the league. There is something in the air at the club, with the reluctant acceptance that their miracle-working sporting director, Monchi, is likely to leave the club in the summer too, that the stars might well be aligning for it to be their year to do so.
They ended Real Madrid’s 40-game winning streak and produced a first-half performance at home against Barcelona in November that could only be counteracted by the very height of Lionel Messi’s powers.
In NZonzi they have a midfielder whose composure comes as close as you can get to rivalling that of Sergio Busquets at his peak.
And in Samir Nasri and Jovetic hitting form they have the embodiment of Monchi’s eye for a player capable of rejuvenation.
But, what’s more, there is a spirit at Sevilla; a growing momentum. One fit for a title.
“There is no fear,” said Iborra, after scoring his eighth goal in 13 games on his 200th appearance in La Liga. “He who is not ambitious has no place in this team.”