Real Madrid fought back from 2-0 down to beat Sevilla 3-2 as Karim Benzema's stoppage-time winner took them a step closer to clinching the title.

Sevilla looked to be breathing life back in LaLiga's title race, but Carlo Ancelotti's side produced a brutal second-half performance to make a real statement.

Perhaps suffering something of a Champions League hangover, Madrid were sluggish and found themselves trailing to goals from Ivan Rakitic and Erik Lamela, both caused by defensive mishaps.

But the pattern of play was dramatically flipped on its head after the break, with Rodrygo pulling one back and fellow substitute Nacho Fernandez equalising, before king of comebacks Benzema sealed the turnaround.

Sevilla and Real Madrid were title rivals when they last met in LaLiga back in November.

Then, as is the case now, Madrid led the table, but Sevilla were just two points back in third having played the same number of games. Optimism was growing for a genuine title fight.

But the team the capital from behind to win 2-1 through a late Vinicius Junior goal and have since opened a significant gap to Sevilla.

Including the three earned at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid have collected 10 more points than Sevilla in the intervening period.

Now, as the sides prepare to face off again at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Carlo Ancelotti's men – fresh from reaching the Champions League semi-finals – look to be coasting towards a 35th championship.

Even victory for Sevilla would only close the deficit to nine points with six games to play – and such a result feels highly unlikely based on recent history.

One-sided recent rivalry

Perhaps discussion of a tussle at the top earlier in the season was premature given Madrid's dominance of this fixture in the past few seasons.

Defeat at the Bernabeu was Sevilla's fifth in six league matches against Madrid, with their other encounter in that run a draw.

Indeed, this is their worst winless run against Madrid since a sequence of 15 games between May 1993 and April 2003 – 13 of which were losses. That was Sevilla's longest such streak against Madrid in LaLiga history.

 

Away day success in Andalusia 

This miserable stretch for Sevilla has included consecutive home defeats to Madrid, who are now bidding to win three in a row away from home in this fixture for the first time since a run of four ended in November 1996.

Those past two Madrid victories have been by 1-0 scorelines, meaning they could become only the third team in LaLiga history to win three in a row at Sevilla without conceding after Barcelona in March 1961 (three matches) and Celta Vigo in November 2003 (four).

Madrid have enjoyed recent trips to Andalusia as a whole, winning on their past seven visits. This is their best ever such run in LaLiga.

Los Blancos have scored in 31 of their past 32 league matches in the region (W24 D2 L6) for 78 goals in total at a rate of 2.44 goals per game.

Can ex-flop Lop stop the rot?

The match in November was Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui's 100th in LaLiga, but it should have come as no surprise that it did not come to plan. His career rarely has when Lopetegui has become entwined with Madrid.

His Spain tenure was ended prematurely when he agreed to join Madrid as coach on the eve of the 2018 World Cup – a decision that panned out for nobody.

Lopetegui oversaw just six wins in 14 matches in all competitions before he was sacked after a 5-1 defeat to rivals Barcelona. His win rate of 42.9 per cent was the second-lowest among all Madrid coaches to oversee multiple games.

As evidenced by the result in November, things have scarcely improved for Lopetegui where Madrid are concerned since his dismissal.

He has overseen five of the six matches in Sevilla's winless run in this fixture, with the four defeats tied for his most against any team in LaLiga – along with Barca, of course.

On the other hand, opposite number Ancelotti has won six of his seven games against Sevilla as a coach, including two victories in finals, winning the UEFA Super Cup with Milan in 2007 and Madrid in 2014.

Benz at his best while Martial flounders

It was hoped the January signing of Anthony Martial would boost Sevilla's title hopes, yet his only goal in their colours so far came in the Europa League against Dinamo Zagreb.

There has been just a single assist in LaLiga, too, meaning Martial is still waiting for his 100th goal involvement in Europe's top five leagues two months on from his 99th – that tee-up for Rafa Mir against Elche.

 

This underwhelming form stands in stark contrast to that of compatriot Karim Benzema, who has 38 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, with only Robert Lewandowski matching his 51 goal involvements among players in Europe's top five leagues.

Benzema has eight goals in 21 LaLiga games against Sevilla, although he has scored just once in 10 visits to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Only at Camp Nou (one goal in 13 games) has he played as many games while scoring so few goals.

Of all the seasons to improve that return, though, this is surely the one.

Football is fickle. It doesn't take long for outlooks and perceptions to be flipped on their head, and nowhere is that truer right now than in LaLiga.

As recently as mid-February, Real Madrid's lead at the summit – which they have held since matchday three – was only four points over Sevilla, who themselves were 11 ahead of a Barcelona side languishing in fifth.

But as we head into Sunday's clash between Barca and Sevilla at Camp Nou, the Blaugrana know they will go up to second and above Julen Lopetegui's men in the table with a win, and they'd still have a game in hand.

Xavi has overseen a massive improvement and, following the 4-0 Clasico win prior to the international break, Barca have the opportunity to make another statement this weekend.

It's not over yet

While sympathy will be in short supply given what's been a largely excellent season for them in LaLiga, Sevilla have undoubtedly gone through a tricky period.

When Anthony Martial was brought in on loan from Manchester United in late January, it was initially seen as a move that would go one of two ways: the Frenchman was either going to be electric and give Sevilla the extra push they needed to challenge Madrid, or he would fail to get over the ineffectiveness that had begun to engulf him at Old Trafford.

Suffice to say Martial will not be back at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan next season – or at least not as a Sevilla player.

Lopetegui has had to contend with something of an injury crisis for much of the past three months, which to a certain degree makes it surprising they are only nine points off the top. Further to that, if Sevilla avoid defeat at Barca, they will set a new club record for their best unbeaten run in a single top-flight season (16 games).

 

But that stat flatters them, significantly. Of the most recent nine games in that run, Sevilla have won just twice. Five of their seven draws have come away from home against mostly mid-table opposition, plus struggling Deportivo Alaves. They've not scored more than twice in any league game since October.

As such, it's difficult to see how they can contend with a reinvigorated and in-form Barcelona this weekend – but whichever way it goes, assuming it's not a draw, there's every reason to believe Sunday's showdown could genuinely reignite a title race.

Polar opposites

While victory for Barca would propel them up to second for the first time this season, they will also still have a game in hand on Los Blancos. A nine-point deficit won't be easy to turn around over nine matches, but Madrid do still have trips to Atletico and Sevilla to traverse, and they have the added 'distraction' of the Champions League, at least for the time being.

A win for Sevilla would be momentous, not least because they've failed to get a single league success at Camp Nou since December 2002.

Such a scalp over a team that has won seven more points (from one game fewer) in 2022 could be the boost a flagging Sevilla need to finish the season strong. It would surely improve their belief ahead of Madrid's visit next month.

But at this point, Barca look far more likely to offer a threat to Madrid in the final weeks of the season, with Sevilla's slide in the second half of 2021-22 threatening to completely derail their campaign.

Frustrated by a lack of goals and an almost chronic inability to convert draws into wins, Los Nervionenses have won just four league games this year. While their lack of defeats is commendable, they've scored more than only six teams in 2022 – a group that includes each of the bottom four in the table.

 

Lopetegui has been rightly praised throughout his time at Sevilla for building a team that is extremely difficult to break down, with only Manchester City (53) bettering their 49 clean sheets across the big five leagues since his appointment in 2019, and that's obviously played a part in their unbeaten run.

But there have been numerous times in the past few months where fans have been crying out for more attacking emphasis, and it's for this reason that it's hard to imagine Lopetegui was ever truly a candidate to take over at Manchester United before he ruled himself out, even if he was genuinely on their four-man shortlist.

Whereas Barcelona, whose dealings in January really ignited something in Xavi's squad, have scored 27 goals since the turn of the year and also been tight at the back, with their seven concessions only bettered by Sevilla.

Something has to give

A potentially key aspect of Sunday's showdown will be how well Barca press. No one has scored more goals (six) than them from high turnovers in LaLiga this season, with four of those coming since Xavi's appointment.

Playing into that is the fact Sevilla like to play out from the back. This is reflected by them seeing 222 high turnovers recorded against them this season, the third most in LaLiga, but only two have led to a goal – just three teams have conceded fewer goals from such situations.

This is evidence of how effective Sevilla are regrouping, but such an approach will be risky against a Barca side in such imperious goal-scoring form and clearly useful at winning the ball back in advanced areas – Osasuna (253) are the one team with more high turnovers than the Blaugrana (248).

Turning over Madrid's lead in LaLiga will be a rather different proposition, but success on Sunday certainly won't dampen Barca's outlook.

Julen Lopetegui has no current desire to coach any other club as the Sevilla boss shut down suggestions he is a contender to take over at Manchester United.

Former Spain and Real Madrid boss Lopetegui is reportedly on United's shortlist to succeed interim manager Ralf Rangnick at the end of the campaign.

Lopetegui is rumoured to have been added to a list that also includes Mauricio Pochettino, Luis Enrique and favourite Erik ten Hag.

The 55-year-old has rebuilt his reputation with Sevilla since being dismissed by Spain and then Real Madrid, where he lasted just 138 days.

In two full seasons at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, Lopetegui has delivered back-to-back top-four finishes and won the Europa League, beating United en route to that success.

Lopetegui has been linked with other clubs as well in recent times, apparently turning down Tottenham before they hired Nuno Espirito Santo last year, and it would seem he also has little interest in a move to Old Trafford.

"I've said it many times before: I am where I want to be, at Seville," Lopetegui told ABC de Sevilla. "I'm happy. I can develop my work here in the best possible way. I've no doubts.

"In football, no one ever knows where you might go, but I have no doubts. My will is firm. I am where I really want to be."

Sevilla suffered a disappointing Europa League last-16 exit to West Ham earlier this month, but Lopetegui's side are second in LaLiga with nine games to go.

The Spanish club's sporting director Monchi recently backed Lopetegui to stay at the helm for many years to come, and the former goalkeeper appreciates that support.

"I am very grateful for the words of Monchi," he said. "It's a comment that marks the club's intentions, just as I mark mine. But I have to prove all of that with my day-to-day work.

"We have to always be on our toes. We have to give our all and ensure we always live up to expectations by doing a job good. We will continue in this way.

"The confidence I have felt at this club from day one is absolute, something I will always be grateful for. I will try to return that."

Argentine forward Paulo Dybala is set to exit Juventus at the end of this season.

As a result, the Bianconeri are assessing their options for a replacement.

Juventus are currently fourth in Serie A after an excellent run of results which have put them into the title picture.

TOP STORY – ZANIOLO FRAMED AS DYBALA REPLACEMENT 

TuttoMercato claims Juventus have set their sights on Nicolo Zaniolo as Dybala's replacement, with the Roma attacker unlikely to renew with the Giallorossi before his contract expires in 2024.

The first domino in this instance is Dybala, whose contract expires at the end of this season. Juventus have no intention of extending according to Fabrizio Romano. Romano claims the 28-year-old will not move another club in Serie A, opening up a move to long-time suitor Tottenham.

According to TuttoMercato, Juve have chosen Zaniolo as their replacement and would be ready to make a move in the upcoming transfer window. Whether they can manoeuvre to match his current market value of €40million remains to be seen, however.

ROUND-UP

- Per Sky Sports, Manchester United have narrowed their shortlist for a permanent manager down to Ajax's Erik ten Hag, Sevilla's Julen Lopetegui, Spain boss Luis Enrique and Paris Saint-Germain's Mauricio Pochettino .

- Inter have targeted Edinson Cavani as a replacement for Alexis Sanchez, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Calciomercato reports Arsenal will make a move for Arthur in the upcoming transfer window, as contract negotiations with Juventus have broken down.

- Arsenal are also keen to tie Bukayo Saka to a long-term contract, in attempts to fend off outside interest for the 20-year-old, per The Athletic.

Manchester United's hopes of silverware this season are officially over and focus is now turning towards the 2022-23 campaign.

The Red Devils are left focusing on their top-four battle in the Premier League following elimination to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League last 16 this week.

That has surely ended Ralf Rangnick's hopes of landing the managerial position full time, though it remains to be seen who will be in the Old Trafford hot seat come next term.


TOP STORY – UNITED RAMP UP MANAGERIAL SEARCH

The likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Erik ten Hag and Thomas Tuchel have each been touted as contenders to replace Rangnick, but another name may now be in the frame.

According to Spanish outlet Fichajes, Sevilla boss Julen Lopetegui is also being considered for one of the top positions in world football.

Lopetegui has previously managed Real Madrid and the Spain national team and is in his third season with Sevilla, whom he remains under contract with until 2024.


ROUND-UP

- Newcastle United intend to splash the cash when the transfer window reopens at the end of the season and, according to Fichajes, Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar is in their sights. The Brazil international was jeered by his own supporters during last week's win against Bordeaux.

- After two years with Tottenham, Fabrizio Romano claims that left-back Sergio Reguilon could be on his way back to Spain in the coming months. Barcelona are said to be monitoring his situation, while Madrid have a buy-back clause of around €40million.

- It could be a busy transfer window for Madrid, who have also been strongly linked with PSG forward Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund's in-demand striker Erling Haaland. However, Goal reports that Los Blancos are losing hope of beating Manchester City to the signature of the latter.

- Man City midfielder Rodri has another three years to run on his contract, but The Telegraph suggests that the Premier League leaders are eager to tie the midfielder down to an even longer deal, with talks between the two parties ongoing.

- La Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Nikola Milenkovic is on the radar of Inter and Man Utd. Inter are said to have made the Fiorentina and Serbia defender one of their primary targets, while United had scouts present to watch him against Bologna last week.

Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui angrily bemoaned the state of Rayo Vallecano’s pitch, questioning whether their game on Sunday should have gone ahead after his side dropped critical points.

The 1-1 draw in Vallecas keeps Sevilla second but could see them end the matchday 10 points behind league-leaders Real Madrid, who are still to play Real Mallorca on Monday.

Despite the potential title implications, Lopetegui was seemingly more concerned with the pitch quality and how that reflects on LaLiga.

"In a scenario like this, you should not play this game in the Spanish league. I say this for ourselves and Rayo, which is a team that proposes to actually play football," he said post-match.

"It is not good for the league or for the competition and it is also not good for the health of the footballers. The state of the grass is unfortunate."

His criticism did not stop there, however.

The 55-year-old coach saved some for referee Juan Martinez Munuera, with a goal and penalty for Rafa Mir taken away following separate VAR interventions.

The overturned penalty in the 79th minute, with Sevilla chasing a late winner, was particularly contentious as Mir was brought down after apparent contact with Alejandro Catena.

"The referee's action has been decisive. He has annulled a goal and also the action for the penalty. The referees told us that grey areas in decisions are not re-arbitrated and that is why I do not understand," Lopetegui said.

"If we enter into that dynamic, VAR does not have an end. I am surprised by that decision that would not have happened in other games and I am confused by the criteria with VAR that it’s necessary to correct the black and white, but not the grey.

"I think it is an issue to be resolved clearly, but while the issue is being resolved we feel harmed."

Will they? Won't they?

Real Madrid's own stuttering form over the past few weeks has at least helped to retain a hint of unpredictability at LaLiga's summit, but it's difficult to not think Sevilla keep blowing their opportunities.

It's not likely to get any easier on Sunday, either. They headed into this matchday six points behind Madrid, which in itself certainly isn't insurmountable.

But then Madrid beat Rayo Vallecano, and Sevilla's visitors are local rivals Real Betis, who are absolutely flying and chasing a victory that would lift them to within just two points of their neighbours.

Prior to Sevilla's slender – and ultimately irrelevant – 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday in the Europa League, the only side to have beaten them this year is Betis, who were 2-1 victors in the Copa del Rey in mid-January.

Since then injuries have played a significant role for Sevilla and they could conceivably be without Gonzalo Montiel, Diego Carlos, Jules Kounde, Lucas Ocampos, Erik Lamela, Suso, Anthony Martial and Karim Rekik on Sunday.

Several of those have been absent for other games in the last few weeks, and in the cases of Lamela and Suso, for much of the season. As such, since that defeat to Betis, Sevilla have won only two of seven games in all competitions.

But to many, a potential obstacle for Sevilla in their quest for an unlikely title triumph had long been identifiable, and it will only be made even more obvious against Betis.

Replacing the irreplaceable?

In 2020, Sevilla saw Ever Banega bring his second spell at the club to an end. Across his total six years at the club, either side of a single season with Inter, the Argentinian playmaker had been a fundamental part of the team.

A feisty competitor, excellent dribbler and possessor of wonderful vision and passing abilities, Banega's presence meant Sevilla always had a viable creative option in the middle of the pitch, even if using the flanks was a key concept for both Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui.

Since Banega departed for Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab, Sevilla simply haven't replaced him adequately. Ivan Rakitic, while still capable, isn't the same kind of player; Papu Gomez hasn't had consistency in any one position; and Oliver Torres has been unable to step into his former team-mate's shoes.

 

That creative role in midfield would be considered by most Sevilla fans as the final piece of the puzzle. The other two central positions are filled ably by Joan Jordan, an effective facilitator, and Fernando, who sits deeper to sweep up and help out with Diego Carlos and Kounde, something he's done to great success since joining.

But from a creative standpoint, Sevilla need only glance across town to see what they are missing in that area of the pitch.

Now, of course, the make-up of a midfield can have a major impact on other parts of the team, so were Sevilla to have a more penetrative central trio, there's every reason to suggest they'd not be as solid at the back.

But with Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir strutting their stuff for Betis, it's difficult to not at least wonder where Sevilla might be with a more positive outlook in midfield.

Sevilla's glaring weakness is Betis' biggest weapon

It cannot be overstated just how good a job Manuel Pellegrini is doing at Betis. Since the end of 2019-20, they have paid a transfer fee for just one player at €3.8million – in the same period, they've lost roughly €60m of talent, yet here they are, looking certainties for a Champions League spot.

Undoubtedly essential to Betis are Canales and Fekir, both of whom were exceptional and scored in the January Copa defeat of Sevilla.

Their influence makes Betis a real danger through the middle of the pitch, an area they are heavily reliant on.

We managed to isolate their key passes that have been played from the central column of the attacking third, and the outcome is impressive.

 

Betis are hugely active in this area, with as many as 36.7 per cent of their key passes being made from the zone in question. Only Real Mallorca (40.2 per cent) are busier here than Betis.

Sevilla, on the other hand, create just 25.2 per cent of their chances from the middle third, which is the lowest proportion of all 20 teams in LaLiga.

In fact, no Sevilla player has managed more than seven key passes in this section of the pitch – four Betis players have more than 10, with Fekir (14), Canales (21) and holding midfielder William Carvalho (12) accounting for 47 between them. That's only 11 fewer than Sevilla's entire squad.

 

Of course, a key element of Sevilla's setup is that they attack from the flanks, but it should be pointed out that Betis' proportion of touches out wide in the attacking half is only 2.2 per cent less, so they cannot be accused of neglecting the wings.

The difference is Sevilla are massively (too?) reliant on attacking from wide positions because they don't possess players with the kind of incisiveness that Betis do in midfield, both in terms of passing and ability on the ball.

 

It all comes back to an inability to replace Banega.

Failure to win at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Sunday will surely end Sevilla's title hopes as they would be left nine points adrift of Madrid.

While injuries have many fans pessimistic anyway, few would be surprised if it's in midfield where Sevilla's dreams are crushed.

Sevilla have slammed Real Betis players for appearing to mock the head injury suffered by Joan Jordan when hit by an object thrown from the stands in their contentious Copa del Rey clash.

As Betis players celebrated Nabil Fekir's equaliser at the Benito Villamarin on Saturday, an object – seemingly a long strip of plastic – was thrown from a home section behind the goal and struck Jordan right in front of referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea.

Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui called his players over as Jordan received medical attention on the touchline, and Bengoetxea subsequently ushered the teams off the pitch – many Betis players remained pitchside until the match was eventually suspended.

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) arranged for the remaining 51 minutes to be played behind closed doors on Sunday despite Sevilla protesting the game should not be allowed to go ahead without Jordan, who was unavailable after being sent to hospital to be kept under medical supervision. Betis went on to win 2-1.

After the initial incident, several Betis players took to social media to openly accuse Jordan and Sevilla of milking the situation; Cristian Tello posted a video of the Sevilla midfielder defiantly slapping his own face in the direction of the home fans, which Willian Jose shared alongside several clown emojis.

Tello claimed Sevilla did not want to play, while Victor Camarasa accused Lopetegui of encouraging Jordan to exaggerate his condition – but Andres Guardado has attracted the most attention.

Following the victory on Sunday, Mexican veteran Guardado was caught on camera appearing to mock Jordan's injury by hitting himself on the head with a bottle and theatrically throwing himself to the floor.

He claimed that "at no time was I making fun of the act suffered by Jordan", but Sevilla have been left feeling "alone" in their attempts to ensure derby tension is only felt on the pitch.

"Sevilla strongly condemns the humiliation and attacks on honour suffered by our player Joan Jordan and the lack of respect towards our coach, Julen Lopetegui, about whom unsubstantiated comments have been made based on self-serving speculation," a statement read.

"The reality is that Jordan received the impact of an object thrown from one of the stands occupied by Real Betis fans during last Saturday's Copa del Rey derby, played at the Benito Villamarin.

"No one should ignore the objective data. Jordan was attacked, was treated in a hospital, had to rest at home due to medical prescription and was unable to play in the resumption of the game.

"The victim is Jordan. There is never room for mockery with a victim or comments to divert attention from what happened, a very serious incident.

"In this sense, Sevilla considers certain behaviour by some members of Real Betis towards Joan Jordan, Julen Lopetegui and the Sevilla fans to be unfortunate and unacceptable, seriously compromising the healthy rivalry that is generally experienced in the city of Seville.

"Sevilla believes that sports institutions and those who make them up must be the first to promote the values ​​of respect and tolerance that are intrinsic to sport.

"Sevilla will continue working to reduce the tension and working so that the tension in the derbies is experienced only and exclusively within the field of play, although we feel alone in this mission."

Julen Lopetegui believes Barcelona finally have a clear vision for their future as his Sevilla side attempt to inflict one final blow of a terrible year for the struggling giants.

It has been a woefully grim 2021 for Barcelona, with the club having encountered dire financial problems that were a factor behind their greatest player, Lionel Messi, being forced to leave.

On the field, they won the Copa del Rey in April but have endured a torrid time in the Champions League and LaLiga, with another club legend, Ronald Koeman, losing his job as coach as a result.

The COVID-19 crisis has hit Barcelona hard, but out of the chaos of the last 12 months has risen an emerging group of young players who could save the club a fortune in transfer fees and point to a bright future on the pitch.

The likes of Pedro, Gavi, Ez Abde and Nico Gonzalez have come to the fore, at a time when Barcelona cannot rush to the cheque book to solve their problems.

With Xavi returning to the club as head coach, there are grounds for optimism again at Barcelona. Yet results continue to be mixed, and the perennial LaLiga title challengers are nowhere near that battle this time around as they head into their final game of the calendar year.

They travel to face a Sevilla side who sit second and are six points behind leaders Real Madrid with a game in hand.

Former Spain and Madrid boss Lopetegui would love his team to head into the winter break on a high, with this season one where they may not have to worry unduly about Barcelona entering the title race.

That could change if seventh-placed Barca win on Tuesday and shrink their deficit to Sevilla down to seven points, and Lopetegui has seen enough of Xavi's work-in-progress team to be wary of their threat.

Yet a 2-1 win at the weekend against last season's champions Atletico Madrid means Sevilla are on a high.

 

Lopetegui said in Monday's pre-game news conference: "Very recently we were playing one tough game and now another that is even tougher awaits us.

"We will measure ourselves against one of the best Barcelona [teams] for a long time.

"They have improved a lot, with players that you'd struggle to see at other teams, young but very good. They have got players back such as [Ousmane] Dembele, so we're expecting them to be very strong and with the influence of Xavi.

"We'll try to be fully recovered and prepare well, today we trained with 13 first-team players so we'll have to wait until tomorrow to make our final decisions."

Sevilla and Barcelona have both scored 28 goals in LaLiga this season, but the leakier defence has been that of the Catalan giants, shipping 21 in 17 games compared to Sevilla's league-best 12 conceded. Curiously, Barcelona have made just one error that has led to a goal, while Sevilla have made four.

These teams have scored their goals in strikingly different manners, with Sevilla having an even split between right-footed and left-footed goals among their haul – 11 of each – while Barcelona have scored just three left-footed goals and 20 right-footed, a sure sign that the Messi era has passed.

There has also been a major disparity between the finishing of each team. Barcelona have an expected goals (xG) score of 31.06 in LaLiga, but have fallen short of matching that, while Sevilla have impressively outperformed their xG total of 22.34 to stay on Madrid's coat-tails.

 

These teams like to have the ball, so something must give on Tuesday.

Barcelona have had 65.02 per cent of possession across their games this season, while Sevilla have had the ball 60.39 per cent of the time.

Injuries might be biting, but this is no time for searching for excuses, with Lopetegui insisting Barcelona's 3-2 win over Elche on Saturday did not fairly reflect the dominance of Xavi's team. Barcelona led the shot count 19-5 in that game, were 2.8 to 1 ahead on xG, and had 73.4 per cent of possession.

Lopetegui said: "You can see what Barcelona are looking for and they have the right players for that. They want the ball, they want width. They've got young, capable players, some of them start for Spain, while they've got top-class, experienced players. They have a lot of width, they're good at one-on-one situations, etc. Between the two areas we're going to have to do a lot of things right."

Julen Lopetegui has come a long way. Very little highlights that more than the fact he has been mentioned as a potential long-term successor to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United.

While such a move probably won't occur, with Mauricio Pochettino seemingly the likeliest to walk through the door at Old Trafford at the end of the season, the speculation is at least a vindication of the work Lopetegui has done at Sevilla over the past two and a half years.

Of course, it wasn't long before his hiring by Sevilla that Lopetegui seemed to be the butt of all jokes in Spanish football, with the situation surrounding his Spain departure attracting criticism before he was swiftly shown the exit by Real Madrid.

But he is a coach who really has put in the hard graft, having quickly lost his first ever job in management before then opting to refine his skills in youth coaching, steadily working his way up to prominence.

His football may not be universally popular, but Lopetegui has restored his reputation in an emphatic way.

Julen's gambit

Lopetegui saw the writing was on the wall.

"I know the culture of the club. I am identified with [the club] and with its fans. I am not surprised by a dismissal because football depends on results and we are not achieving them," he said.

While you'd think that might sound like what Lopetegui would have said after getting dismissed by Madrid, it was actually a frank response to being ditched by Rayo Vallecano back in 2003.

Rayo, whom Lopetegui finished his playing career with, were in the second tier and won just one of their first 10 league matches under their new, inexperienced coach. They went on to suffer a second successive relegation.

Although getting sacked wasn't a surprise for Lopetegui, it seemed to shock him into something of a rethink – he returned to his first professional club as a player, Real Madrid, in 2006 as their head of international scouting, and two years later he was in charge of the 'B' team, Castilla.

That was the first of several roles focused on youth coaching, which would see him looking after Spain's Under-19s, Under-20s and Under-21s over the following six years. Two seasons with Porto reintroduced him to senior club football, before Spain came calling again.

This time it wasn't an age-group role, it was the real deal. Lopetegui took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and set about establishing a new dynasty for La Roja.

 

It was a largely positive two years. Ahead of the World Cup, he had presided over 20 matches for Spain, winning 14 of them and losing none.

That made him the Spain coach to have overseen the most games without losing, while his 70 per cent winning record is second only to Del Bosque (76 per cent) among those to preside over at least 15 games.

Goals weren't hard to come by either. Sure, World Cup qualification in Europe can bring about some lopsided results that boost averages, but still, Spain's 3.1 goals per game under Lopetegui remains the best of any Spain coach (min. 15 matches).

However, his decision to enter a post-World Cup agreement with Real Madrid, which was announced just a few days before Spain's campaign was due to begin, did not go down well with the Royal Spanish Football Federation. He was sacked and Fernando Hierro was brought in at short notice to preside over an ultimately disappointing Russia 2018.

Many criticised Lopetegui; some understood why he'd accepted the Madrid opportunity, others suspected it to be a poisoned chalice.

Predictable Perez

Given what he said after being sacked by Rayo some 15 years earlier, why Lopetegui saw Florentino Perez as the patient type was mystifying.

"Real Madrid is still alive. This is still October, we have done some good things, made a lot of chances, and we will try and improve and be more effective. We are ready to play a game of this size and these demands," he said prior to what proved to be his final match in charge.

After the game, that appraisal turned to: "I feel sad, but I want to remain in charge. It's a big blow, but I'm strong enough to know everything can be turned around. I have a lot of faith in this group of players."

Only, Lopetegui wasn't given the chance to turn it around, as we all know, for a 5-1 demolition by Barcelona in El Clasico brought an abrupt end to his brief 14-match stint at the helm. In football terms, there was surely no greater humiliation for a Madrid coach.

 

It was only the third time this century Madrid have conceded five times to Barca in LaLiga, and it meant Los Blancos had lost three league games on the bounce – again, this has only happened on two other occasions since January 2000.

Of course, there's lots to be said for why Lopetegui failed at Madrid. For one, his first-choice full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were in and out of the team, and such positions carry great importance for Lopetegui.

Additionally, let's not forget this was a Madrid very much in transition after the departure – and failed replacement – of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was seemingly expected that Karim Benzema would instantly pick up Ronaldo's slack, despite only passing 20 league goals in two of his previous nine LaLiga seasons. The Portugal star never went below 25 in his nine campaigns in Spain.

 

While Benzema did ultimately score 21 times in the league, only four of those (one via the penalty spot) – split across two games – came during Lopetegui's 10 games. Decisiveness in the final third was a real issue for the team, demonstrated by the fact they failed to beat Levante despite having 34 shots and set a new club record of 481 minutes without a league goal.

But Zinedine Zidane, Lopetegui's predecessor, saw this coming. As he bade farewell to the club alongside Perez just 15 days after winning a third successive Champions League title, the Frenchman spoke persistently about "change" and openly acknowledged he thought "it would be difficult to keep winning if I stayed".

Whether that was down to insufficient investment in the first team, the likelihood of retaining such high standards in the Champions League or a combination of both is unclear, but it would seem his successor was always on a hiding to nothing.

 

From rock-bottom to redemption

Lopetegui left Madrid with the second-worst win percentage (42.9 per cent) across all competitions in the club's history (min. two games), better only than Amancio (40.9).

 

But his record and impact at Sevilla couldn't realistically be much more of a contrast. Over his first 100 matches in charge in Nervion in all competitions, Lopetegui's 59 wins were a joint-record for the club.

It's almost fitting that his 100th career LaLiga match as a coach will come against his former team this weekend – it would be an even sweeter occasion were he to mastermind his first ever victory over Madrid, as success for Sevilla on Sunday will move them above Los Blancos and potentially put them top.

LaLiga is shaping up to be the closest it's been in years. Whether that's down to a dip in quality across Spain's top flight or not is a debate for another time, but Sevilla certainly looked well-placed to mount a challenge for the title having ultimately fallen just short in the final weeks of 2020-21.

At the very least, they are surely on track to finish in the top four in three successive seasons for only the second time since the Spanish Civil War, and it's this kind of consistency that's undoubtedly caught the attention of Man United, whom he defeated en route to 2019-20 Europa League success.

There are reasons to suggest he could be the sort of 'system coach' United need, as well. He's turned Sevilla into a side who dominate the ball, with their 64.4 per cent average possession for the season second only to Barcelona (65.8), while only the Catalans and Madrid have attempted and completed more passes.

But where many teams who like to dominate possession tend to press high, Sevilla do much more of their pressing in the middle third of the pitch – working with a striker like Ronaldo, who's engaged in just 113 pressures in the Premier League this season, ranking 30th at his position, may not be such an issue.

 

For example, Sevilla's 61 high turnovers are 10 fewer than any other LaLiga team this season, yet they have allowed opponents to have just four build-ups (sequences of 10 or more passes) that resulted in a shot or touch in the box. The next best record here is 10 (Barca and Villarreal).

This theoretically then gives Sevilla the chance to showcase their strength in picking through a counter-press, which is demonstrated by their 73 high turnovers against being the third-lowest in the division – none have led to a goal.

 

After getting by on individual quality and a helping of nostalgia for nearly three years, United need a coach who has proven he can mould a team to his philosophy – Sevilla may not be the most exhilarating team to watch, but they are effective and Lopetegui got results very quickly.

Certainly, Lopetegui ending up at Old Trafford any time soon isn't likely, but if Sevilla continue to churn out results in LaLiga and make themselves a genuine silverware rival to Los Blancos and Atletico Madrid, it's only a matter of time before Europe's biggest clubs come poking around. 

Where Lopetegui once saw Madrid as his greatest opportunity, he hopefully now just sees them as a mere obstacle in his quest for a crowning achievement: winning Sevilla their first title since the 1940s.

Mauricio Pochettino remains Manchester United's top target, according to reports.

It may be some time before the Paris Saint-Germain boss ends up at Old Trafford, though. 

United appear set to finish this season with an interim manager before making a permanent move for the sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's long-term successor.
 

TOP STORY – UNITED FOCUSED ON INTERIM MANAGER OPTIONS

All indications are that Mauricio Pochettino will end up at Manchester United eventually, but it could take several months.

The Daily Star reports Pochettino will have to wait six months – through to the end of this season – before jumping from Paris Saint-Germain to Old Trafford.

The report says United have not made any official overtures to PSG and are focused on finding an interim boss instead, with hopes of appointing one by mid-December.

Julen Lopetegui and Ernesto Valverde are among the candidates for that role, claims the Daily Star, while the Mirror says Ralf Rangnick, Paulo Fonseca, Lucien Favre and Rudi Garcia also are in the mix, along with caretaker manager Michael Carrick.

ROUND-UP

- United and Newcastle are the top contenders to sign Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid, according to The Sun.

- Liverpool and Barcelona are eyeing a move for Christian Pulisic, reports El Nacional, but Chelsea's €50million price tag would be too much for Barca and the Blues prefer not to sell the USA international to another Premier League club.

- Chelsea are interested in adding defender Attila Szalai from Fenerbahce, says Football Insider.

- Adama Traore could be on the move in January as Wolves are prepared to listen to offers for the 25-year-old, Football Insider reports.

While the future of Harry Kane looks set to be the dominant talking point among Tottenham fans for the remainder of the transfer window, there does at least appear to be positive news for Spurs on the horizon regarding a potential incoming.

Granted, it's probably not going to be the kind of deal that immediately has Kane thinking, 'Hang on, this is all the proof I need that I can win trophies here'. But ambition is certainly at the root of the latest developments.

According to Sky Italia, Spurs are close to the signing of Bryan Gil for £21.6million (€25m) plus Erik Lamela. Should it go through, it's arguably one of those rare deals that actually looks like good business for all involved.

For sure, if you consider Lamela to be worth somewhere between £15-20m, it's obviously a lot of money for a player barely out of his teens, particularly when you consider the transfer could reportedly involve an extra £4.3m and a percentage of any future transfer.

But Bryan is arguably among the top three under-21 players in Spain with Ansu Fati and Pedri, and like them has already been capped by Spain. Although there's no guarantee of success, the potential is there.

Bryan Giggs?

It was in Bryan's third Segunda B game for Sevilla's second team, Sevilla Atletico, that he truly announced himself in September 2018. Although he switched between the two flanks, he was at his liveliest on the left and his abilities caused chaos for the opposition, San Fernando.

Even at the age of 17, he was clearly a cut above everyone else on the pitch, his direct yet mazy runs conjuring up images of a young Ryan Giggs as he looked to weave his through the crowds in his way.

He got the first goal, an emphatic finish from the centre of the box, drew the foul that saw a San Fernando player sent off, and then brilliantly beat his full-back before darting along the byline and cutting the ball back to set up what proved to be a 90th-minute winner.

While that game saw Bryan grab the attentions of a few more Sevilla fans, those who had worked with him before were already well-accustomed to his ability.

Sevilla have a link-up with a local school, and their football team CD Altair has seen numerous players come through their side en route to Los Nervionenses' first team. Jose Campana, Antonio Luna, Sergio Rico, Carlos Fernandez and many others have made that journey, while Carlos Alvarez – their next potential homegrown superstar – featured for the first team in a recent friendly at the age of 17.

The technical secretary of Altair, Miguel Mora Lopez, considers Bryan to be one of the two standouts.

"Altair has had a good relationship with Sevilla for many years now," Mora told Stats Perform.

"Throughout our history there are countless professional players who have passed through our ranks in their early years, but it's true that Bryan or Carlos [Alvarez] are the most outstanding so far.

"We always thought that Bryan would succeed in professional football. He was with us only one season when he was 14 years old, but we liked his game. He was creative and very incisive in attack."

 

Talented but incompatible

January 2019 saw Bryan make his first appearance in LaLiga for Sevilla, and he went on to make 10 more before the season was up, becoming the first player born this century to get an assist in the top five European leagues. Everything pointed towards him potentially becoming a regular in 2019-20.

While the appointment of Julen Lopetegui has generally been extremely fruitful for Sevilla as a whole – a Europa League crown and back-to-back top-four finishes – it's difficult to not now see that as the beginning of the end for Bryan at his boyhood club.

Spurs fans might be inclined to see this as a red flag. 'If Lopetegui doesn't rate him then why are we signing Bryan?' It seemingly comes down to the style of player that he is.

Bryan is above all quite an old-fashioned winger. Though he is adept at coming inside even from the left – and a future as a number 10 certainly isn't outside the realms of possibility given his technical ability – a lot of his game is about running at his man, beating him and getting a cross into the box.

 

For example, his tally of 122 open-play crosses was the fifth-highest in LaLiga last term. He's certainly persistent, and in theory this should be perfect for the system Lopetegui likes to operate, with a big and physical centre-forward to get on the end of deliveries. After all, Youssef En-Nesyri came third behind Ante Budimir (seven) and Karim Benzema (six) for among the most headed goals in 2020-21.

But in reality, Lopetegui prefers to use inverted wingers while overlapping full-backs provide more of the 'traditional' wing play. Lucas Ocampos, Suso, Alejandro Gomez, Rony Lopes and Oussama Idrissi are all wingers signed since Lopetegui took over – all like to cut in from the flank and on to their stronger foot.

Bryan played just two league games in 2019-20 prior to joining Leganes on loan for the second half of the season and was then allowed to join Eibar for 2020-21. It proved to be a stroke of genius in some ways.

Although Eibar suffered relegation, Jose Luis Mendilibar's 4-4-2 setup helped bring out the best in Bryan. Their high-pressing system showcased his tenacity and work rate, while their two-man attack meant wing play was essential without a bona fide number 10.

He quickly blossomed into a key player.

Bryan the brave

Spurs fans looking to learn more about Bryan may see his goals (four) and assists (three) output in LaLiga as perhaps a little underwhelming, though that doesn't really give the clearest picture of his effectiveness.

 

For starters, we have to remember Bryan was playing in a team that finished bottom of LaLiga, with Getafe (28) the only team to score fewer goals than them (29).

It's fair to say that was more about those finishing the chances as opposed to Bryan's creativity. His 0.18 xA (expected assists) per 90 minutewas bettered by only five wingers/wide midfielders (minimum 1,500 minutes played) last term, while it was a fair bit higher than his 0.12 actual assists each game.

Similarly, among the same group of players, Bryan ranked fourth for the most open-play key passes per 90 minutes (1.4), which again makes him something of an outlier considering Eibar's relegation.

It's also worth pointing out relegation battles aren't generally the situations managers tend to chuck teenagers into without any consideration of their mentality and qualities – but Mora's assessment brings further credence to the idea that Bryan's just a bit different.

"He wasn't shy at all," Mora added. "Yes, he was a skilled player who moved the ball well and made very precise crosses, but he also added bravery on the field. He never avoided a 'melee' with any opponent."

That bravery can manifest itself in several ways. One of them is tenacity – his average of 12.7 duels per game is impressive for a wide player. Most of those who rank higher than him (minimum 1,000 mins played) are central strikers. For further context, Lionel Messi recorded 14.9 in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, Bryan won the ball back in the final third 1.2 times every match, a figure only two players could beat in 2020-21 (min. 1,000 mins).

And the other area where his courageous streak comes into play is with regards to dribbling, probably his biggest asset. Alberto Perea (6.1) and Ousmane Dembele (5.5) were the two individuals to attempt more take-ons per game than Bryan (5.2), while over the course of the season, he set up 16 chances following a ball carry. Among those considered by Opta to have played predominantly as a winger/wide midfielder in 2020-21, Bryan's 16 ranked only behind Goncalo Guedes (17) and Dembele (23).

 

System adaptation may be required

There's little doubt Bryan has a lot to offer, and although his rather scrawny stature might lead to concerns over his physical suitability, he's demonstrably a player who isn't shy or withdrawn.

But stylistically it will be intriguing to see how he settles into the team should the deal go through. At Eibar last season he played in a side that was almost characterised by its high press, their 363 high turnovers being more than any other side in LaLiga. By contrast, Spurs recorded just 228 while new coach Nuno Espirito Santo's Wolves managed just 205 – both were among the bottom three in that metric.

 

But Spurs' 68 direct attacks were 28 more than Eibar, and Bryan's pace, ability on the ball and eagerness to get in a cross could potentially suit that rather well, while Nuno tended to play with two genuine wingers at Wolves.

Of course, the deal does represent something of a gamble, but is there really such thing as a 'Premier League guarantee'? We've seen countless players do well at one Premier League club before tanking at the next. Alexis Sanchez, anyone?

The important thing here is that Bryan's undoubtedly an exceptional talent and his skillset – at least in theory – seems to lend itself quite well to the fast and furious Premier League.

The last winger to make his way from Sevilla to the Premier League was Jesus Navas. For all his critics, he didn't do too badly, and Bryan already appears rather more equipped.

Julen Lopetegui has rejected an approach from Tottenham, according to Sevilla president Jose Castro.

Sevilla head coach Lopetegui has rebuilt his reputation with the LaLiga club after being sacked by both Spain and Real Madrid in 2018.

Last season he led Sevilla to a fourth-place finish and Champions League qualification, having won the Europa League in 2019-20.

Spurs' fraught search for a long-term successor to Jose Mourinho has taken in links to Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte, appeared close to a conclusion during discussions with ex-Roma boss Paulo Fonseca and descended into farce when fans protested against the prospect of appointing Gennaro Gattuso, the former Milan and Napoli head coach.

And, if Castro is to be believed, Lopetegui is not about to answer Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's call.

"Julen rang me and told me," Castro told Cadena SER regarding an offer he described as "dizzying".

"Some coaches are more driven by economic factors but Julen is very clear that he is happy here and he even said it would be very difficult to find a better place to work than here.

"We believed and believe in him, giving him a two-year contract extension, and I'm sure he will bring much more to the club."

Uncertainty at Tottenham has not been helped by speculation over star striker Harry Kane being unsettled, with Manchester City reported to have tabled a £100million bid for the England captain this week.

When Sevilla defeated Inter in their gripping Europa League final clash last August, there was a sense of deja vu for Los Nervionenses. Not only because they were winning that trophy for the sixth time, but also that talk quickly turned to "the next step".

Sevilla had been here before: Their back-to-back UEFA Cup successes under Juande Ramos were supposed to transform them into a new power in Spanish football, but it didn't quite happen.

Then the Europa League three-peat with Unai Emery was supposed to elevate them, but in the 13 months that followed the hat-trick-clinching win over Liverpool, Sevilla lost two coaches (Emery and his popular successor Jorge Sampaoli), revered sporting director Monchi and some of their best players.

Monchi returned in 2019 following a well-publicised split with Roma, his reputation having taken a significant hit. The damage has been impressively repaired, however, building a Europa League-winning squad straight away and appointing Julen Lopetegui, the man who got them back into the Champions League.

Looking back, his hiring of Lopetegui was a bold one. Here were two men, both of whom had taken significant flak in their previous jobs, with their own points to prove.

Regardless of Monday's shock home defeat to Athletic Bilbao, it's arguable that Sevilla have already taken "the next step" that Monchi spoke about 15 months ago. Never before in a 20-team LaLiga season had only three points separated top from fourth with five games to go, yet Sevilla were one of them.

A draw between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona coupled with a Sevilla win over Real Madrid the following day could yet see Lopetegui's side get themselves back in the hunt for the title. Even if they don't, 2020-21 has proven Monchi still knows how to find a player and a coach.


Thinking From the Back

Lopetegui came in with his own ideas. Many Sevilla teams over the past 20 years have been exciting to watch with an attacking brand of football. This team are arguably not one of them.

The first thing regular watchers of Lopetegui's Sevilla will say when summarising this team's style of play is that they're not exactly LaLiga's great entertainers. In fact, the 34 matches they've played this term have yielded just 76 goals. Only Osasuna, rock-bottom Eibar (both 72) and Getafe (66) have been party to fewer.

 

Key to this is Sevilla's effective defence, which has conceded only 27 times. Atletico (22) and Real Madrid (24) are the two sides with better records. And looking at expected goals conceded in the table above shows that Sevilla's defence is the most miserly in LaLiga. Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde have proven a hugely successful pairing at the base of the defence for well over a year now, but while it was the Brazilian attracting more of the plaudits last term, it's his young colleague who is capturing the imagination in 2020-21.

While he may not look it when standing next to the supreme physical specimen that is Diego Carlos, Kounde is an impressive competitor in the air. At just 5-foot-8 he has a great spring and his 93 successful aerial duels is bettered by only three other defenders this term.

But given Sevilla generally spend more time on the ball than their opponents, it's Kounde's progressiveness in possession that helps him stand out the most. Lopetegui's flexible 4-3-3 formation often morphs into more of a 3-4-3 as Fernando drops back, and this allows Kounde to push out from the back, in what has become a key aspect of their system.

The Frenchman makes his influence known in two ways. Firstly, he's attempted more forward passes (801) than any other outfield player in LaLiga, and only central midfielder Dani Parejo (624) can better his 623 successful ones.

This speaks to Kounde's positive nature when in possession and his contribution to Sevilla's attack can be highlighted by our sequences framework. Of all centre-backs in the league, only Clement Lenglet (108) has been involved in more open-play sequences that have resulted in a shot than Kounde's 88. Team-mate Diego Carlos is fourth on the list with 73.

 

This forward-thinking approach is aided by Kounde's extreme comfort on the ball. His 12 ball carries (dribbling with the ball for five metres or more) followed by a take-on is third best among centre-backs, and just three other central defenders have carried the ball further up-field across the season than him (5,532 metres).

The confidence of Kounde – and Diego Carlos – on the ball helps explain why Sevilla's 396 pressed sequences against (instances where they have three or fewer passes and the move ends within 40m of their own goal) is the fifth-lowest in LaLiga, while they are the only team not to concede a goal as a result of a high turnover by the opposition.

 

Sevilla are very effective at playing through a press, best demonstrated by their remarkable 37-pass goal against Valencia in the Copa del Rey in January, and Kounde is essential to that, operating as a kind of defensive playmaker in the backline.

 

While they managed to keep hold of him despite interest from Manchester City last year, they might struggle to shoo away potential suitors this time around.

Filling the Void

The one area where Sevilla have perhaps been weaker in 2020-21 than 2019-20 is in midfield. Losing Ever Banega was always going to be a blow, but replacing him has proven especially difficult.

Ivan Rakitic received something of a hero's welcome as he returned from Barcelona and, perhaps through nostalgia-tinted glasses, was billed as Banega's initial replacement with Oscar Rodriguez seen as the long-term heir.

While Oscar has hardly featured, Rakitic has at least been a fairly regular part of the team, often filling the third midfield spot alongside the first-choice pair of Fernando and Joan Jordan.

But despite his adulation, Rakitic's influence simply hasn't been anything like that of Banega, who offered far more across the board last season than the Croatian has at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in 2020-21.

Instead, it's been Jordan who has courted praise after kicking on from an encouraging first campaign at the club. The fact he’s now seemingly in the thoughts of Spain coach Luis Enrique speaks volumes about his progression this year.

A dynamic midfielder, Jordan sets the tempo for Sevilla but also contributes off the ball in a role not too dissimilar to that of Koke at Atletico Madrid, who is only of only six midfielders to have completed more passes than the former Eibar man (2,161).

His 1.97 tackles per 90 may not be remarkable, but among midfielders with at least 15 appearances, it is above the average of 1.65. Tackle numbers are always likely to be lower for players of teams who tend to see more of the ball anyway, but it proves Jordan is by no means only of use on the ball.

That is, however, when he's at his most comfortable. Granted, he has on occasion been accused of being a sideways-pass merchant, perhaps explaining why as many as 11 central midfielders have been involved in shot-ending sequences with a better cumulative xG value than Jordan (10.4).

However, this is likely down to how Sevilla's midfield trio all sit quite deep rather than any inherent lack of creativity. After all, Jordan has played a role in 10 shot-ending sequences where he has both created a chance and been involved in the build-up, behind only Frenkie de Jong, Luka Modric, Pedri and Toni Kroos.

He may not be the flashiest of midfielders, but Jordan has proven himself effective and clearly has the trust of both Lopetegui and the rest of the squad.

While replacing Banega will probably be on the agenda for Monchi again at the end of the season, Jordan's shown he could be worth a shot in a more advanced position.


En-Nesyri Defying the Doubters

When Sevilla shelled out roughly €20 million in January 2020 on a striker who had scored just 18 LaLiga goals in his first 77 matches, it's fair to say eyebrows were raised.

Although only 22 at the time, it felt as though Youssef En-Nesyri had already been around for quite a while, but he'd rarely stood out as a particularly outstanding player. Hard-working, sure, but a Champions League-level striker? There were many who had their doubts.

Rather gangly, just as likely to trip himself up as he was to beat his man, the Moroccan scored four goals in his 18 league appearances last term following his mid-season move and he failed to truly dislodge Luuk de Jong, who was widely derided until his Europa League final heroics.

But En-Nesyri has proved a lot of people wrong this season, his haul of 17 league goals so far is the same as his total for the previous two campaigns combined.

Even more impressive is the fact none of them have come from the penalty spot.

 

He really has led the line in excellent fashion, and his non-penalty xG of 15.1 is the third highest in LaLiga, suggesting he is frequently getting into high-quality scoring locations. When he does get those opportunities, the Sevilla striker is putting them away. Of players to have scored at least 10 goals this season, his 24.3 per cent shot conversion rate is a record that only Marcos Llorente can better.

 

Playing consistently alongside better players and in a system that seems to accentuate his pace and aerial strength is seemingly paying off. And it's in the air where he really comes into his own, which marries up well with Sevilla's most regular source of chances.

Jesus Navas may not be to everyone's liking, but he's been reborn as a right-back for Lopetegui, getting himself back into the Spain squad when his career looked to be petering out upon returning from Manchester City in 2017-18.

Navas has created 59 chances from open play this season – the highest number of any player. Only twice before in La Liga has he managed more over a full season, back in 2011-12 and 2012-13 when he played exclusively as a winger.

Navas' bombing forward from right-back – aided by Kounde's effective covering behind – is a key facet of Lopetegui's system. He's attempted (160), and completed (52), the most open-play crosses in LaLiga. Similarly, his 32.5 per cent crossing accuracy is better than anyone else to have attempted at least 50.

This is where En-Nesyri's aerial strength comes in. He's only behind Rafa Mir (13) for headed shots on target, while Karim Benzema (six) is the only player with more headed goals than the Sevilla striker (five).

It remains to be seen how much more En-Nesyri has to give, and the same can be said generally for Sevilla, with their 1-0 loss to Athletic raising questions of their ability to break down stubborn opposition.

Ahead of Sunday's trip to Madrid, our AI predictor gives them a minuscule 0.1 per cent chance of upsetting the established order and clinching their first LaLiga title since the 1940s.

But Madrid aren't going to set themselves up to nullify Sevilla, they need the win too and will surely look to put as much pressure on their visitors as possible.

But with capable ball players such as Kounde and Jordan in the side looking to break the lines, such a situation could be conducive to giving En-Nesyri, Lucas Ocampos and Papu Gomez space on the break.

Sevilla couldn't, could they?

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