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Soccer managers are often asked whether the result or the performance is more important to them. Their answer usually depends on which of the two their own team is doing better at. If you probed him, Sevilla manager Julen Lopetegui would probably affirm the primacy of the result. Because for three La Liga matches on the bounce, his side have emerged triumphant despite being outplayed by the opposition on each occasion.
Sevilla have collected nine points from the last nine available. They created few chances of note against Villarreal, who found a way in behind Sevilla’s defense on several occasions. Yet Lopetegui’s side dug in to win 1-0. They repeated the trick against Athletic Bilbao a few days later. On the balance of play, the Basque outfit could easily have beaten Sevilla 2-0 or 3-0. Instead they lost 1-0.
Their 2-1 victory over Atletico Madrid on Saturday was not quite as much of a smash and grab, but Diego Simeone will have nevertheless felt hard done by to leave the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan empty-handed. For the La Liga title race, though, that was a huge win for Sevilla. They are eight points behind Real Madrid at the summit of the standings with a game in hand on the league leaders. With Atletico and Barcelona almost certainly out of the championship fight, Sevilla are the only challenger to Madrid left standing.
It is something of a cliché that the sign of champions is the ability to grind out wins when you are not playing well. But if Sevilla want to keep pace with Madrid, they will probably need to improve the quality of their underlying performances.
It is not often that Barcelona have more modest ambitions than Sevilla, but that is certainly the case this term. Xavi Hernandez has lost only one of his first five league games in charge of the Blaugrana, yet the team remains outside the top four. The gap separating them from the Champions League spots has been cut to three points, though, giving Barcelona renewed hope of qualifying for next season’s edition of Europe’s principal competition.
The underlying statistics suggest Barcelona are a little unfortunate to be down in seventh place. They rank top of the league for expected goals and fourth for expected goals against. But anyone who has watched Barcelona, even under Xavi, will be able to see why they are trailing Madrid and Sevilla by such a substantial margin.
For instance, the 3-2 victory over Elche at the weekend was far from convincing. The defense looked vulnerable throughout, and none of the back three – comprised on Saturday by Eric Garcia, Clement Lenglet and Ronald Araujo – emerged with much credit. There were some positive performances from the young players, most notably Gavi, but Barcelona still do not look like a completely cohesive team.
It is still early in Xavi’s tenure and we can expect his side to make more progress in the coming weeks and months. This is not a vintage Barcelona but there is still more than enough quality within the squad to secure Champions League soccer. This midweek trip to Sevilla will be a good test of where Xavi’s team are at right now.
Most soccer teams around the world prefer playing at home. That is self-explanatory: minimal travel, a partisan home crowd and familiarity with the surroundings can all boost a side’s chances of victory. Their results so far this season demonstrate that Sevilla and Barcelona certainly feel more comfortable playing at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan and the Camp Nou respectively.
Sevilla have won seven of their eight matches on their own patch this term, with last month’s 2-2 draw with Alaves the only blot on their copybook. That is a tremendous record and one which illustrates why no team in La Liga enjoys going to the Pizjuan. Barcelona are also strong at home, but their record on the road leaves a lot to be desired. The Catalans have triumphed in just one of their seven league games at opposition stadiums this season.
If they fail to improve on their travels, it is hard to see Barcelona qualifying for the Champions League. A trip to Sevilla is one of the most difficult assignments a Spanish side can be handed, and Lopetegui’s players will be full of confidence after Saturday’s triumph over Atletico and the wins against Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao before that.
Sevilla are a tough team to play against and although Barcelona will have plenty of the ball on Tuesday, they must ensure they do not fall into the trap of keeping possession without a purpose. Whereas Barca are still finding their feet under Xavi, Sevilla’s players know exactly what Lopetegui expects of them. Back a home win in this one.
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|Sevilla vs Barcelona Information|
|Teams||Sevilla vs Barcelona|
|Location||Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, Seville, Spain|
|Time||Tuesday, 21 December 2021, 15.30 PM EST|
|How to watch||ESPN|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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