Sevilla return to Copa del Rey final, a tonic amid a difficult season
"I want to apologise," Sevilla coach Vicenzo Montella said. "It hurt,"
It hurt the fans most of all, but it didn't take long for he and his players to be forgiven. Disaster became delirium in four days. On Sunday morning, Sevilla Futbol Club were a goal down after 40 seconds and were hammered 5-1 at Ipurua, the second time they had conceded five in five games. By the following Wednesday night, they were celebrating reaching the Copa del Rey final on Apr. 21 at the Wanda Metropolitano, or Mestalla, or the Cartuja or, well, somewhere.
Wherever they eventually play, and when they face Barcelona, it will be Sevilla's fourth Copa del Rey final in 11 years and their 17th final in all competitions since 2006. This has been their decade, the best days of their lives. They've enjoyed 17 finals in 12 years when there had only been five in their entire history before that. The day that they reached the 2006 UEFA Cup final against Middlesborough, they'd gone 44 years without reaching a final and 58 without winning a title.
Something shifted that night against 'Boro when they won the first of nine titles: two UEFA cups, three Europa Leagues, a Spanish Super Cup and and a European Super Cu. Now they have a chance to win a third Copa del Rey since 2006. This will be their ninth final: against Sabadell in 1935, Racing Ferrol in 1939, Celta in 1948, Athletic in 1955, Real Madrid in 1962, Getafe in 2007, Atletico in 2010, Barcelona in 2016. Now they meet Barcelona again, two years on.
"I'm very, very happy; I'm also pretty tired," said Montella after the semifinal, second leg victory against Leganes. "The emotion is huge," said Joaquin Correa. "This is a reward after how difficult it has been."
"Difficult" is one word. Bluntly put, bad is another because here's the thing, the inescapable truth: for much of this season, Sevilla really haven't been very good at all. For most of this month, they haven't been either. In fact, they've been pretty awful.
Sevilla sacked manager Eduardo Berizzo just days after he underwent surgery for cancer and a few days before Christmas. The team was through to the last-16 of the Champions League and fifth in the table, but it was not enough. Position is one thing, performance another. They approached three managers, eventually settling on Montella, but things didn't improve. His first game at home was the Seville derby and by the end of the night, he admitted: "this makes me very sad."
Not half as sad as the rest of them.
Sevilla were beaten that night for the first time in eight derbies: "Betis burn Nervion," ran the headline in El Pais. It finished 5-3 to the visitors and prompted 500 Betis fans to celebrate high in the corner long after the stadium had emptied and fallen silent. "It's hard to take," admitted striker Wissam Ben Yedder, but that was just the start. In January, they won only once in the league: 3-0 at Espanyol. Alaves beat them 1-0, they drew at home with Getafe and then were hammered 5-1 at Eibar.
At the end of the defeat at Alaves, Nolito approached the fans in one corner and made an embracing gesture as if to ask for forgiveness and support. "Now that we're going through a dip, we need to support each other," he told them. "It's the attitude; you can't just walk around the pitch," replied one supporter, standing in the front row. "I know, I know," said Nolito. "We suffer too when we lose, our families [suffer], you [suffer], all of us do."
The following day, a group of 30 fans turned up at the club's training ground and spoke to the sporting director, Oscar Arias, and the club captains, making clear how unhappy they were. Pressure and protest, it was denounced by most, but some thought it necessary.
This was Arias' first crisis in his first season. In that context, it was tempting to see Sevilla's ills as something a little deeper, possibly even permanent. After 17 years, the sporting director Monchi had departed. Often seen as the architect of their success -- the man who, more than anyone else, built this team and this era -- his departure was always likely to be a traumatic one. It was, at very least, a step into the unknown. What they were finding didn't look good and there was none of that confidence they would come through it like they always had been before. He brought players, sure, but he brought tranquility too.
Under him, every year Sevilla sold players, their best footballers departing -- from Sergio Ramos to Julio Baptista, Jesus Navas to Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic to Carlos Bacca -- but somehow they kept winning. They normalised such sales to the point where it didn't even seem to matter, where there was no panic. But this was different; this was Monchi, the system itself.
It wasn't just the signing and the selling. As they prepared for the Europa League final in 2016 he was handling everything, right down to the players' luggage and tickets for the families. Monchi was Sevilla. Before Christmas, Steven N'Zonzi had found himself removed from the Sevilla team having fallen out with Berrizzo; it seemed his days at the Pizjuan were over. Lost amid the things that were said was a line that appeared to explain a lot. "With Monchi, this would have been sorted in five minutes," said N'Zonzi.
With Montella's arrival, N'Zonzi's own situation was resolved but their collective malaise was another matter. January was a difficult month and there was no immediate recovery, no simple remedy. Instead, some feared that the crisis would continue.
Yet if that Sevilla seemed to have gone, something of that Sevilla remained, something of what they have become over the last decade; not just on the pitch but in the stands too, where the demands are high but the communion is complete. There is something about the Sanchez Pizjuan, that's for sure, and reaching finals became something they do. It's their thing. It feels right.
It does not feel like coincidence that Sevilla's anthem is arguably the most impressive and most moving in Spain, belted out before kick-off. Nor that even in bad times, there are good moments. Moments of rebellion, pride. Like Liverpool: 3-0 down at half-time, they came back to draw 3-3. And above all, like the Copa del Rey, some glory to grab hold of.
"Sevilla have won important things in recent years and can fight with anyone," said Arias. "We did it with teams like Atletico Madrid, who took two of our best players off of us." Vitolo and Kevin Gameiro were at the Wanda playing for Atletico when Sevilla went there and won before beating them at home to reach the semifinal against Leganes.
"Sevilla is a cart that rolls on and everyone who climbs on board rolls on too, thanks to the momentum - with Monchi or without Monchi, with Andres Palop or Sergio Rico, with Coke or Navas," said Antonio Alvarez, the last manager to win the Copa del Rey with the club. "The structures are strong and the club is maintained."
More importantly, perhaps, so is the spirit. Sevilla have been beaten just once at the Pizjuan in over a year (even if that was by Betis) and they have not lost a Copa del Rey game there since December of 2013. On Wednesday night against Leganes, they won 2-0.
"We played with Sevillista spirit," said Montella.
Before the midweek match, a huge banner was unfurled. "What I most want is to be a champion again," it said. "All together, take me back to the final." So Sevilla did. Club president Jose Castro had faced abuse when they lost the derby; now he was beaming. "Once we know where it'll be played, the board wants to make an economic effort for the fans so that they can go to the final because there have been a lot of them lately," he said.
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.