Gregorio Manzano took the reins of Sevilla FC one week ago from the sacked Antonio Álvarez, and he did not inherit a club that inspired any confidence from los nervionenses that filled the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán on Sunday afternoon. Although the Andalusians only lost one of their first five matches in La Liga, two draws against cellar-dwellers Racing de Santander and Deportivo La Coruña and a loss to newly-promoted Hércules prompted Sevilla chairman José María del Nido to act swiftly and hire the man that was the betting favorite to become Sevilla manager during the summer months.
Last season, Manzano led Mallorca, a club that fostered mediocre expectations at the commencement of the campaign, to the brink of the UEFA Champions League, when, ironically, Antonio Álvarez and Sevilla broke los barralets‘ collective hearts with a stoppage time goal against Almería that propelled Sevilla into the playoff round of the Champions League and dropped Mallorca into the playoff round of the UEFA Europa League. Besides a fourth-place finish in La Liga, Álvarez and Sevilla defeated Atlético Madrid in the Copa del Rey final to add to their trophy case.
Del Nido faced a similar situation that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich endured in 2008, when the managerial mid-season replacement accomplished feats that would make it hard for the owner to supplant him. In Abramovich’s case, Avram Grant led Chelsea to the Champions League final, and save for a John Terry penalty kick that hit the post, Chelsea would have won the trophy that Abramovich most desired. In addition, Chelsea harried Manchester United to the final matchday for the Premier League title, where Chelsea eventually capitulated when they could only draw 1-1 against Bolton Wanderers, whereas Manchester United defeated Wigan Athletic 2-0 to win the league by two points.
Amidst a groundswell to retain Grant as the manager, Abramovich made the decision to release Grant three days after the Champions League heartbreak and eventually hired Luiz Felipe Scolari later that summer.
When Mallorca released Manzano not due to performance but due to financial difficulties that eventually led to administration, José María del Nido wrestled over the future of his team’s managerial leadership between Manzano and Álvarez, but unlike Roman Abramovich, del Nido rewarded Álvarez for his work after replacing Manolo Jiménez and extended his contract through at least the end of the 2010-11 season.
After the ignominy of failing to qualify for the Champions League group stage at the hands of the little Portuguese team that could in Sporting Braga before the start of the La Liga season, Álvarez’s leash shortened considerably, and any other slip-up would be the impetus for Sevilla to fire Álvarez. The 2-0 defeat to Hércules last weekend became that tipping point.
Amazingly, no team hired Manzano in the offseason, but he likely was biding his time until the Sevilla job opened, and immediately after Álvarez received the axe, Manzano accepted the position.
Manzano’s first test in La Liga came against an Atlético Madrid side who dearly wants to right the wrongs of last season’s domestic campaign. While they marveled as a cup team, winning the UEFA Europa League and reaching the Copa del Rey final, their indifferent form in the league equally flabbergasted as they finished ninth, their worst finish since 2006. Atleti has returned to their normally solid play in La Liga this season, sitting in fifth spot prior to the match against Sevilla. The schizophrenia that marred this team last season has not completely left the brain, as their Europa League form reeks of indifference and middling.
Los colchoneros were not at full strength against Sevilla because José Antonio Reyes was serving his suspension for a red card he received in the previous match against Real Zaragoza and Sergio Agüero suffered an injury to the gluteus maximus muscle of his left buttock (no joke) in Friday’s training session.
For Sevilla, Manzano’s team started to come back to a good bill of health as Abdoulay Konko, Frédéric Kanouté and Renato returned to the starting eleven. When Sevilla has been most successful, they played in a classic 4-4-2 formation with Jesús Navas and either Diego Perotti or Diego Capel flying down the wings to provide service for the two forwards Kanouté and Luís Fabiano. While Navas did not play due to a thigh strain and Fabiano sat on the bench due to poor form, Manzano returned Sevilla to the 4-4-2 with Capel and Perotti on the wings and the maligned Álvaro Negredo pairing with Kanouté up front.
After the opening hour where Sevilla slightly wielded the upper hand, Sevilla scored twice within a span of six minutes to break open a tight affair. In the 29th minute, Diego Perotti cut from the right and brought defenders with him, and when he made the reverse pass to his right for Álvaro Negredo into the penalty area, Negredo found some valuable space in which to work. Negredo was not quite set for the shot, so he took a vital touch to his left to set himself up and create space from the two Atlético defenders that were scrambling to close down Negredo. He curled the shot toward the left far post, and de Gea had no chance of getting a hand on it.
Six minutes later, Diego Capel’s feathery touch sent in Frédéric Kanouté into the box free and unmarked, and de Gea did well to rush off his line and close down the angle to save Kanouté’s shot. The rebound from the save, however, lofted to Perotti just beyond the “D,” and Perotti took the shot on first-time, deflecting off Paulo Assunção to the left side of the goal, and de Gea was frozen once the ball took the deflection.
Save for a period of ten to fifteen minutes in the second half when Atlético Madrid scored their only goal of the match, Sevilla controlled the flow and never felt threatened by the rojiblancos. The search team could not find Diego Forlán throughout the match as he continually looked a frustrated figure, and while Filipe Luís and Diego Costa provided a small spark coming off the substitute’s bench to start the second half, the same team that struggled to secure a draw against Bayer Leverkusen on Thursday showed up against Sevilla on Sunday.
Sometimes, managers receives too much credit or blame for what their players do on the pitch, but the eleven that Manzano put out against Atlético Madrid played with a freedom and desire that was achingly unapparent under Antonio Álvarez. As with José Mourinho with Real Madrid, a managerial change can affect the group of twenty-five players in a positive manner if the manager commands the respect of those players immediately. While Gregorio Manzano does not own the sprawling curriculum vitae of Mourinho, Manzano’s achievements at Mallorca certainly deserve credit. When he inspired his Mallorca team to perform at their best when the players were not getting paid, that might be the toughest task to do with professional footballers.
After Sevilla goes to El Molinón to play Sporting Gijón after the international break, their following three fixtures will determine if they will be a genuine factor at the top of the table: home against Athletic Bilbao, at the Camp Nou against FC Barcelona, and home against current league leaders Valencia. If Luís Fabiano brightens his moody attitude and avoids injuries that have plagued him in the past year and a half, his combination with Frédéric Kanouté, as proven in the past, can turn into the lethal force once again. With Real Madrid and Barcelona slightly more vulnerable than at any point last season, Sevilla must seize this tough stretch by the neck and play without fear in order to attain at least six points out of nine. Gregorio Manzano is the right man to motivate this team and lead them for the foreseeable future.
Fueras de Juego
– Scoring problems? What scoring problems? Real Madrid laid the 6-1 hammer down on pathetic Deportivo La Coruña in the final match of the round, and Gonzalo Higuaín got off the schneid with his first goal of the season. This match was Real Madrid’s first since the club replaced their “potato field,” as José Mourinho coined it, with imported Slovakian grass, and the pitch looked and played just as fine as its owners did. Despite the six-goal outburst, Mourinho will not be happy that they conceded a late goal to Juan Rodríguez.
– Mallorca has gone two for two against Real Madrid and Barcelona as Mallorca held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou. Mallorca also drew with Real 0-0 in their opening match of the season to steal two valuable points against the royalty of Spanish football. For Barcelona, the same story keeps being told: numerous golden and silver chances but unable to capitalize on enough occasions. Last year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was supposed to give the Catalans a different element with his size and aerial ability. This year, David Villa is supposed to be the savior as the center forward in the front three. The ghost of Samuel Eto’o continues to loom, as Barcelona has not been as clinical in front of goal since Eto’o went to Inter Milan.
– Almería played the best football of the twenty teams this weekend but somehow managed to only draw against Málaga 1-1 at home in their newly-named arena Estadio Juan Rojas. Ten ocasiones de gol (scoring chances), twenty-six shots overall, and a leaky Málaga defense that conceded the most goals in La Liga prior to this round of matches should have equaled an easy win, but three efforts off the woodwork, a missed penalty by Kalu Uche, and various other misses that avoided the target by a couple of yards or less conspired to split the points with an undeserved Málaga. These types of matches hurt the most, especially for a team that could be in the relegation fight throughout the course of the season.