Here we are again: Saturday night at the Santiago Bernabéu, the title decision. Eighty-five thousand tickets long gone, history to be made. The first versus the second, 100 goals between them, the rest behind. The club that has not been beaten at home, with more points than anyone in Europe, hosting the club that has not lost away, the league leadership waiting for the winners. Top scorers face to face, fighting for the Pichichi. That symbol of Spain against the side supported by the Catalan president in exile. A building-sized bust suddenly appears in the capital: we are coming for you. It’s all set to be a classic, but it’s not clásico.
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This is not Real Madrid against Barcelona; It is Real Madrid against Girona. Somehow, Girona made it this far; the win on Saturday and maybe Míchel Sánchez’s team believe they could really do it. They beat Barcelona and beat Atlético Madrid; beat Madrid and it’s true. The club that has never won anything, never even reached Europe, only got the first division in 2017, went down again, and they are only playing their fourth top-flight season, with a budget. 14th the amount of Madrid, could really win the league.
“We want to make history at the end of the season,” said Míchel. “It was also special to leave the top of the Bernabéu, it would leave Girona on everyone’s lips. But we would still not be candidates to win the league. There are still 14 games left and I think Madrid and Barcelona will win a lot of games. For us, every game is difficult. To win the league, you need 85-90 points and we have 56 points. Madrid can do that, and Barcelona and Atlético can do it. It is not fair for anyone to claim that we will win the league.”
There is no claim, although it would be disappointing if they fall away, which says something about what they have done, the impossible looking more possible by the week. Girona are not supposed to be up there but here they are and they have steadfastly refused to let it go. They come into this trip to the Bernabéu having topped the table in nine of the 23 weeks to date, moving into first place four times. Just two points behind, that will extend to a fifth, if they win, making it 10 weeks in total. Until now. No wonder the L word is used more often: Leicester.
Can Girona do what Leicester did? On the evidence so far, they can. In fact, having collected 56 points after 23 games and losing just once, they are doing better than Claudio Ranieri’s side, who finished 2015-16 on 81 points, having lost three times .
The other teams are probably the problem, as Míchel suggested. In 2016 Arsenal finished second on 71, having been beaten seven times. Spurs were third on 70. Madrid are already on 58 with 45 to play.
“Whoever wins tomorrow will have an advantage, but this [season] very long,” Carlo Ancelotti said on Friday. “Girona has great hope and motivation. They could win the game and lead the league and we have to keep that in mind. But tomorrow doesn’t decide anything: the league will be decided later, no matter what happens.”
Whatever happens, this has been an extraordinary season, which is reflected in the fact that anyone dares to suggest that this is the title buyer. This week, a huge flag was raised in the center of Madrid, carrying echoes of the election campaign of the president of Barcelona, Joan Laporta. Organized by an HR company that is one of Girona’s sponsors, it shows their players celebrating with the slogan: “When your CV doesn’t mean everything.”
Girona has the smallest stadium in the first division, at 13,942, in a city far from football madness, and many people support Barcelona, 99km away. This is a club without any major trophies – they have one Catalan Super Cup, as well as titles in the third and fourth tier of Spain but no more – and a squad with very few too, Daley Blind alone responsible for more than half of them. Look at the CVs of the Girona players and what they have is 37 relegations between them.
The announcement that Brazilian winger Sávio, on loan from Troyes, will be joining Manchester City highlighted the flaw in the fairy tale. It belongs to the Troyes and Girona City Football Group. Forty-seven percent of Girona belongs to the City; Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere owns 16%. “They have the money to rent a space [for their banner] in Madrid, and that can’t be cheap,” Ancelotti noted.
Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium [pictured] He will play a regular NFL game in 2025, it has been announced.
The game, between two yet-to-be-named teams, will be the first NFL game to be played in Spain, adding Madrid to a list of European hosts that includes London, Munich and Frankfurt.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: “Playing a game in Madrid in 2025 underscores the continued expansion of the league’s global footprint and accelerated ambitions to bring our game to more fans around the world.”
Reports in Spain say that either the Miami Dolphins or the Chicago Bears, who both have international marketing rights in the country, will host the Madrid game.
São Paolo will take place in 2024 at the Corinthians Arena, with the Philadelphia Eagles the designated home team. It will be the first NFL game to be played in South America; Mexico City and Toronto have hosted games outside the US in recent years. PA Media
And yet that doesn’t fully explain or diminish what Girona have done on the pitch: only two players belong to the City Group, a salary cap set at €51m (£43.5m) compared to Madrid’s €727m , and the most expensive player in history is Artem Dovbyk, who cost €7m for 50% of his registration. Dovbyk is joint La Liga top scorer on 14 with Jude Bellingham, who cost €103m.
This is still a group of players, and a coach, that was not meant to be anywhere near this. They haven’t gone down the traditional defensive underdog route either, much less done it the dirty way. They finished four behind Atlético, four behind Barcelona and scored more than anyone. Three were 4-2, 4-3, 5-2 and 5-3. Fourteen players have found the net. No one in the league completed more dribbles or provided more assists than Sávio. Only Kirian Rodríguez completed more passes than Aleix García. Their only win was against Madrid, and even then their tally was in double figures.
That night Girona lost the best place they claimed for the first time in their history. And that, everyone accepted, was. “We cannot compete as equals with Madrid,” Míchel said, but here they are standing before the opportunity to bring it back again. “We are in a fight that we did not expect,” admitted the President of the club, Delfí Geli. Saturday night at the Santiago Bernabéu, the league on the line.