Girona, like all but Barca and Madrid, can't mortgage La Liga for a cup run
Eusebio Sacristan seemed almost relieved to be invited to tell the truth, seizing upon the opportunity to say it the way it is, not the way you're supposed to. Girona had been beaten 4-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu, and their manager had been speaking for five minutes, talking about how his team would give everything to turn the tie around against Real Madrid in the second leg but sounding very much like a man whose team wouldn't, when the question came and liberated him. He was asked -- forget the cup, forget a first-ever appearance in the quarterfinal, forget the chance to reach the semifinal -- if actually it is the league that's important. To which he said: "Yes."
It wasn't just that he said it; it was how swiftly, how eagerly, he said it. The smile and the way he leapt at it. "Yes, yes," Girona's manager added. "Clearly, what matters is the league."
Clearly. And the honesty was refreshing, even if the substance was perhaps a little depressing. You could see it in the lineup. Between them, Girona's starting XI had scored four league goals this season. In truth, that's largely explained by a solitary absence -- Cristhian Stuani has scored 12; Portu, also on the bench, is second top scorer on three -- but this wasn't a solitary absence. Of the Girona side that started against Madrid on Thursday, only three have played more than half the league games this season; of the eight with the most appearances, only Juanpe and Borja Garcia began at the Bernabeu.
Even in their absence, they led and scored twice. At 2-2, they were in a good position to go through, which would have been nice. Nice, but not necessary. The glory is all well and good, but it's not something to go for. Now they have to come back from a two-goal deficit if they are to progress. "We'll try," Eusebio said; they would give "everything," he claimed. But it was no call to arms. Much as it wasn't the night before, in fact, when Gerard Pique spoke after Barcelona's 2-0 defeat against Sevilla at the Pizjuan. "If we turn it around, great; if not, some other year, then," he said.
The Copa del Rey has long been a flawed competition, poorly structured, dreadfully organised and not always embraced. The inevitable, tedious and unpleasant battle over who hosts the final recurs every year. Fixed in favour of the bigger clubs, it is played over two legs and crammed into January, an extra strain when you need it least, matches played late night midweek and in the cold. Seven thousand were at Getafe on Tuesday, 13,000 at Espanyol on Wednesday. It is a format that the federation, under new president Luis Rubiales, is rightly seeing to overhaul, although that won't necessarily change everything.
Between them, Barcelona and Madrid have won eight of the past 10 Copa del Reys, with Atletico Madrid and Sevilla getting the others. Go back to that stat, though, and it's actually very lopsided: Barcelona have won the past four and six of the past 10. In the meantime, Madrid have won four European Cups, which is one reason why Barcelona, in particular, are less engaged this year and Madrid are more so. It's a reason why Barcelona, saturated and yet also unsatisfied, desperate for European success, believe there may be sense in jettisoning the cup; why, with Ousmane Dembele out injured, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Jordi Alba didn't start against Sevilla and why Lionel Messi didn't even travel. There is still the second leg, though, and Messi will probably play then. The run may continue.
In the past decade this competition has been dominated by the most powerful clubs, rich in resources. These are big clubs, making this feel like a big competition and the final certainly is a special occasion. It does matter. Great games are thrown up too, and great stories as well. Fuenlabrada, for example; or Mirandes; or Leganes. Romance is not entirely dead.
Those are brief moments in the sun, though. Once seen almost as a competition for the "others" -- between 1998 and 2008, Barcelona and Madrid didn't win it once, while Valencia, Espanyol, Deportivo de Coruna, Mallorca, Sevilla and Real Betis did -- one curious consequence of Madrid and Barcelona starting to take it seriously was that quite a lot of the "others" kind of stopped doing so. For them, the dream may be greater, but in part that's because it is so much less likely. The risks, they sometimes feel, are greater too. Unused to playing every three days, not built to do so, their resources are limited and stretched so much more. The glory should grab them, the opportunity, but it doesn't always; their priorities too lie elsewhere.
Girona had reached the quarterfinal for the first time in their history; they had the chance to reach the semifinal, a possible trophy not so far away. That would be the greatest moment in their history: for a team that has only recently reached the first division, playing just the second top-flight season in their entire history, that is huge. But so, they feel, is the risk. Madrid were big; Barcelona three days later are bigger. So is the league.
Girona are 12th, which may sound a long way from relegation, but La Liga is incredibly tight. There are just six points between eighth-placed Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano in 18th. For many teams, every game is opportunity and obligation at the same time: to compete for a European place and to avoid relegation. Huesca look like they might be gone, but 12 teams could be fighting to avoid the other two places -- and Girona are one of them. Especially if they do not arrest their recent slide.
Struggling with injuries and fitness, they haven't won in seven, since defeating Espanyol in November, and are just four points above the drop. They need points and need them now. It's unlikely that they'll get anything from Barcelona on Sunday, you might think. But the way Eusebio sees it, it would have been even less likely if his key players had faced Madrid first.
"The league is what's important," he said. "We see the cup as an opportunity for everyone to participate, to play. Doing that has got us to the quarters, but we have to manage our resources in the best way for the league games."
"It's unusual for a manager to be so honest, but didn't you think about what the cup might mean for the club?" he was asked. Here, after all, was glory, history, something truly special. "Yes, we considered that," he said, "but we have a clear objective, which is that the team is in the first division next year, and we have to manage our resources for the league. We want to get through, but we're not going to mortgage our resources in a way that could damage us in the league."
They had been about to do just that. On Sunday, Girona play Barcelona, the home game that was supposed to be played 7,500 kilometres away. But the league's plans for a first-ever game abroad fell through. Given the way it's gone, the way it was always likely to go, given the injuries, the fatigue and the fixtures, January jammed, the fact that in the end it will played in Montilivi and not Miami is a relief. Witness Eusebio's smile at the Bernabeu, when he was asked if it was better this way. "Without doubt," he said.
"If we had been obliged to travel, that would have been more damaging physically," Girona's manager said. "On the sporting side of the club, we always said that, if they said it was good for growth, we accepted it and were prepared to do that. But in the end, it wasn't to be. And we're as happy as can be."