Sevilla, Sampaoli forced to start again after bitter Champions League exit
Something isn't quite right today. As the continent's biggest clubs gather in Nyon, and some of its smaller ones, too, there's someone missing. For the first time in three years and six months, Sevilla are not in European competition, finally defeated 14 ties and three finals later.
Around 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, a helicopter landed on the King Power pitch ready to carry Leicester City's owner home. Not long before, on that same stage, Sevilla's sporting director Monchi had paced, alone, wearing a lost look, and now his players trudged out of the ground for a less joyous journey, onto the bus and bound for East Midlands airport.
They were heading home and they weren't coming back; they're not in Switzerland this morning.
"It's going to be hard to sleep tonight; I go to bed with a lot of pain, feeling like a dream has gone," Jorge Sampaoli said after they had been beaten 2-0 by Leicester. "I wanted to make history with this club," Adil Rami admitted, sadly. He said he was sorry: sorry for himself, the players and the supporters who would be following them home, more than had ever travelled for any game except the five -- five! -- European finals they've won over the last decade.
It wasn't supposed to be this way but it had happened again. It is 59 years since the only time Sevilla went past this point. Twice they had the opportunity, against Fenerbahce in 2008 and CSKA Moscow in 2010, and twice they had been unable to grasp it. Sevilla are a club that have overachieved but each time, they'd been knocked out by teams they expected to beat and this was the same: the first-leg lead and the simple sense that they are superior to Leicester made them favourites. This time they had underachieved, especially in the context of a season that had raised such hope. It wasn't that absurd to suggest that they could win this competition.
Club president José Castro said that this was a disappointment but couldn't be considered a failure. Many saw it that way, though. "It's easy to talk about failure," Sampaoli said. Natural, too, against this team and in this way. In 2008, they had been beaten on penalties. Nine years on, penalties had been decisive again. Sevilla became only the second side to miss a penalty in both the first leg and the second leg of a tie. "You can't do that in the Champions League," Castro said. Sampaoli said the missed penalties had been "decisive," which of course they had.
The temptation was to conclude that it was also daft. A little odd, certainly. Two different players missed penalties; so far this season, three different players have missed penalties in the Champions League and six different players have missed penalties across all competitions. At what point does it stop being chance?
"The normal takers were not on the pitch," Sampaoli said but it's not entirely clear who those normal takers are and less clear who should take their place: Steven N'Zonzi and Stefan Jovetic's conversation before the spot-kick revealed that neither knew.
If that penalty had gone in, it would have been a different story. That's a line that applies not just to the penalties, but to other moments, too. After the first leg, a member of the coaching staff lamented the fact that the tie was still alive; they could have won it 3-0 or 4-0 but Jamie Vardy's goal had changed everything. That result hurt and so did that realisation, as if the opportunity had already gone leaving insecurity in its place.
After the second leg, that sense of injustice lingered. "If you watch the games it's impossible," came the comment. Afterwards, Sampaoli said he was proud of the "dignity" with which his team had played: attacking with all 10 outfield players, always wanting to go forward, trying to make chances, "the better team in both legs." He said: "All the small details are going against us" and there was certainly something in that: fortune does not always favour the brave.
Yet he also added: "it is possible there is something more and we have to analyse that" and looking at their recent run, there does appear to be something more. Since the first leg, they have:
- Defeated Betis 2-1 in the derby having been utterly overrun in the first half, fortunate to be a single goal down, and then come back with two goals from set plays
- Defeated Athletic Bilbao 1-0, despite the visitors being arguably the better side
- Drawn 1-1 against Alavés
- Drawn 1-1 against Leganés
And those latter two were not games where they could consider themselves unlucky.
Even before the first leg against Leicester, there was a 2-0 win against Eibar, after which Sampaoli said that Eibar had "deserved more"; a 1-0 win at Las Palmas; 0-0 against Villarreal; and a 3-1 loss at Espanyol. A doubtful run. At Osasuna, they had won 4-3. All that following a victory over Real Madrid the week before that confirmed their record-breaking form in the first half of the season -- no Sevilla team had ever picked up so many points -- and announced their candidacy for the title. Their favouritism against the Foxes, too, amply underlined by the first leg.
But things change. Managers, for a start. Players, too.
Sampaoli himself had said that Samir Nasri was vital, as he has been saying all season, and he had missed out since the derby. By then he had already played three times as many minutes as he had in the whole of last season, and his influence had diminished slightly. Sampaoli had taken care of him before the second leg in the Champions League, wanting him back fully fit given the significant role he plays.
El País quoted one member of staff joking "we can't risk him getting injured!" as Nasri headed to the training pitch on a golf cart before the Leicester game, also admitting that they were "taking care of him."
"He is always there when we are at our best," Sampaoli said.
Against Leicester, he wasn't there: he was sent off. Without Nasri, Sevilla rebelled, attacked and won the penalty that would have put them through. And then they missed it. That is inescapable but perhaps, as Sampaoli suggested, there is more.
His Sevilla side had been superb against Leicester in the first leg and should have ended it, but in that context (and with the benefit of hindsight), looking back over the past two months, perhaps the second leg was not such a break from recent trends, unfortunate though they were. Now they need to break through the hurt Sampaoli felt and that nagging sensation that something ended at the King Power; it's likely the last European night for Monchi, the architect of their success, and now they must ensure this does not affect them unduly and that this is not over yet.
That means returning... at least. It means trying again. A month or so ago it might have meant, as Vicente Iborra said after the game, concentrating on the league, a genuine target.
When they beat Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane was asked if Sevilla could win the title. "Yes," he said. He was asked why. "You've seen them," he replied.
Most agreed, even if players privately thought that a 90-plus point league was beyond them, with European football offering a more realistic opportunity. Two months on, few can see it. Four points have slipped through their fingers in a fortnight and recent results suggest a different focus. Still an impressive one and an immediate one as well, but not the same.
Where they were once looking up, at Madrid and Barcelona, they're now also looking down at their next opponents Atlético, a fight for third as likely, or more so, as a fight for first. The need to return to the Champions League, seeking the quarters once more. Right away. On Sunday afternoon, five days after Leicester ended a European era, their next one begins: 4.15 p.m. local time at the Vicente Calderón.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.