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La Liga Review: The Guillotine Falls On Manolo Jiménez

The Sevilla Trio in more harmonious times.

When Sevilla hosted cellar-dweller Xerez on Tuesday evening, an aura of uneasiness surrounded the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.  In the front of the Sevillistas‘ minds was the poor form of their team.  An extended run of indolent performances culminated on Saturday evening with a 2-0 debacle against Espanyol, where Sevilla would lose Jesús Navas for a month with an ankle injury.

Sevilla manager Manolo Jiménez refused to participate in a pity party for his team, rejecting notions that injuries are the main reason for their current slide.  When he spoke to the club’s website about the current situation, he remarked:

“We’ve gotten ourselves in this situation, and it’s us who has to drag the team out of it.  We must seek solutions and not make excuses.  If we now use the problems as excuses, we are not going to go anywhere… I fear nothing.  We will reach third place.”

Sound and logical words from the boss, but in this business, where results remain the only true capital, his team has not recently provided the wins necessary for a club with such high expectations.

When former Sevilla manager Juande Ramos resigned in October 2007 to fill the job opening at Tottenham Hotspur, Sevilla promoted Manolo Jiménez from its reserve team Sevilla Atlético with the hope that Jiménez would continue their upward ascent as a burgeoning Spanish and European force.

This ascension started under Joaquin Caparrós, when he led Sevilla to the Segunda División crown in 2001 and was promoted to the top flight.  With homegrown talents José Antonio Reyes, Sergio Ramos, Antonio Puerta, Antonio Barragán, etc. flooding the Sevilla cantera, there was no chance that Sevilla would struggle to remain in La Liga.  After an eighth-place finish and a tenth-place finish in their first two years back in La Liga, Sevilla finished the 2003-04 season in a landmark sixth-place, earning a ticket into a European competition, specifically the UEFA Cup, for the first time since 1995.

Sevilla president José María del Nido, however, refused to be caught up with his team’s triumphs.  With Real Madrid and Barcelona receiving the vast majority of the TV broadcasting money, del Nido knew he had to sell his most prized assets to infuse extra cash into the team and ensure future success domestically and internationally.  He sold José Antonio Reyes to Arsenal in the 2004 winter transfer window for €25 million, and in the 2005 summer transfer window, del Nido sold Sergio Ramos to Real Madrid for €27 million, then a record fee for a Spanish teenager.

To fill the absence of these wonderful talents, del Nido, along with sporting director Ramón “Monchi” Rodríguez, brought in players from around the world at relatively inexpensive prices.  These players included Dani Alves, Frédéric Kanouté, Christian Poulsen, Seydou Keita, and Júlio Baptista.  All of these players, except for Kanouté, who still plays for the club, were eventually sold at a much higher price tag than at the price for which they were bought, and the Sevilla boardroom continues to be fiscally responsible to this day.

Del Nido made another change that at the time seemed to be a bit of a gamble.  He replaced Caparrós before the 2005-06 season with Juande Ramos, an unremarkable manager whose last indentation on La Liga before del Nido bestowed the Sevilla job on him was leading Málaga to a ho-hum tenth place finish in the 2003-04 season.

In the next two and a half seasons, Ramos reached heights that this club never fulfilled in its history.  Two straight UEFA Cups, consecutive top five finishes, a UEFA Super Cup over Champions League winners Barcelona, a Copa del Rey, and their first berth in the UEFA Champions League when they finished third in the 2006-07 season.

Ramos’ team played with a relentless style that flourished in the final third while simultaneously kept firm in their defensive half.  Two new kids from the youth system began their journeys with the first team: Diego Capel and Jesús Navas.  Ramos never hesitated to employ his young talent, and knowing that at some point his veteran players would be sold, it was somewhat necessary to bleed in these youth players into the squad.

Leaving Sevilla to follow the money at Tottenham (although who would not be tempted with a four-year contract worth €9 million a year), in stepped Manuel Jiménez Jiménez, a Sevilla lifer.  He was Sevilla’s first-choice left back for nearly fourteen years from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s and after retirement as a player, he coached Sevilla Atlético for seven years, nurturing the Sevilla youth talent as they made their way into senior-team prominence, such as Carlos Marchena, Jesús Navas, etc.

With the keys to the car, Jiménez knew he had to impress immediately because his initial contract as the first-team manager was to expire at the end of the season.  Topping their Champions League group with five wins out of six and relegating Arsenal to second place in the group helped Jiménez’s cause.  Although Sevilla would lose to Fenerbahçe in the first knockout round on penalties and finish fifth in La Liga because Atlético Madrid held the head-to-head tiebreaker over them, del Nido was convinced that Manolo Jiménez was the right man, and he gave Jiménez a contract extension.

A third-place finish in the 2008-09 season, including one of the matches of the year when they defeated Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu 3-4 (a win, along with comments about Real Madrid having no shot to beat Barcelona in El Clásico the following week, that cost Real manager Bernd Schuster his job), gave Sevilla another chance to improve on their previous Champions League effort.

Through February 20 of this year, Sevilla achieved a place in the Copa del Rey final in May, their run capped off by dismissing title-holders FC Barcelona, first place in their Champions League group, handing Mallorca its first home loss in the league, and constancy in the top four of La Liga.  Everyone involved with the club sought even higher aspirations in this campaign.

Then the slide commenced.  A four-game winless streak in La Liga before the match with Xerez and a languorous effort in their second-leg defeat to CSKA Moskva that eliminated Los Rojiblancos in the first knockout round for the second time in three years threw the team into a black abyss.  Surely, a home match against Andalucian neighbors Xerez would become the perfect antidote to cure Sevilla of its current malaise.

Through 90+ minutes, Sevilla looked to be on their way to a much-needed win.  Although far from impressive, Frédéric Kanouté’s 62nd minute penalty seemed to be the decisive blow against a desperate Xerez squad that needed points wherever they could find them.

Marius Stankevicius gave away a cheap foul deep in the right flank, and although Fabián Orellana’s free kick was headed away into touch, the resulting throw-in by Sidi Keita led to a penalty box scramble, in which Xerez defender Leandro Gioda capitalized on the loose ball and slotted it past Andrés Palop.  1-1 final.  It was only Gioda’s second goal this season for Xerez, the other coming in Xerez’s only away win this season, a 2-4 victory over Málaga.

Gioda might just be the kiss of death for the opposition when he scores, but that was little consolation for Manolo Jiménez, who could feel and hear the unerring venom from the Sevillistas at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, whistling and chanting for Jiménez to be sacked.

Their wishes came true on Wednesday, when Manolo Jiménez became the eighth manager fired in La Liga this season.  In the press conference that confirmed Jiménez’s dismissal, sporting director Monchi commented:

“He (Jiménez) has done everything possible and impossible, and we only have words of appreciation for his work because he could not have been more professional.  It is time to rejuvenate the team.”

Sevilla’s first-choice replacement, Luis Aragonés, did not accept the job, apparently quibbling with del Nido and Monchi over the length of the contract.  Aragonés wanted the assurance of being contracted through the end of next season, but del Nido would only guarantee Aragonés through the end of this current campaign.

Michael Laudrup seems to be the second choice, although Sevilla has denied of any talks with the former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder and former Getafe coach.  Whatever decision the Sevilla brass makes, the incoming manager will know that the Sevilla job has reached the point, at least in the mind of José María del Nido, where a Champions League spot is necessary and progressing beyond the first knockout stage of the Champions League is paramount.

For Manolo Jiménez, his first stint as a manager in a top-flight division can be classified as a success.  No one questioned his passion for the game or his commitment to his players.  For those who grew up in the Sevilla academy under Jiménez, like Jesús Navas and Diego Capel, this decision will affect them both professionally and personally.  There is little doubt that he will manage again, possibly as soon as next season, but for a person that gave more than twenty-five years of his life to Sevilla, the hurt he feels at this moment will take time to heal.

Fueras de Juego

– Coming into this mid-week round, the top three teams had the top three defenses in terms of goals allowed, but who had the fourth-best defense?  The men from Pamplona.  Osasuna’s defensive line of César Azpilicueta at right-back, Nacho Monreal at left-back, and Miguel Flaño, Josetxo, and Sergio González as central defenders have propelled their team to a relatively comfortable gap above the relegation zone.  With the third-worst attack in La Liga, their defensive intensity is essential to their success, and Barcelona certainly knows what kind of defense Osasuna possesses.

In October, Osasuna held Barça to a single goal, and a Gerard Piqué own goal in stoppage gave José Antonio Camacho’s men a share of the points.  On Wednesday evening, credit is due to Osasuna’s defense more than the Blaugrana being off their game, and even though Barcelona would eventually win 2-0, Osasuna proved to be one of Barça’s fiercest competitors this season.  Any team that can hold Lionel Messi scoreless twice in one season should be commended.

– Racing Santander, who has the worst home record in the league, hosted Mallorca, who had only won twice out of twelve away matches, on Wednesday evening.  A 0-0 draw was inevitable, and that is exactly what happened.  A valuable point for Mallorca at this stage of the season, but this chasm of a disconnect between home and away form is astonishing.  Mallorca has earned a staggering thirty-six points while only gaining eleven points on the road, a point difference of twenty-five.  Only Villarreal has a similar gulf in La Liga, with the Yellow Submarine garnering thirty points at El Madrigal while attaining only seven points away from home, a difference of twenty-three points.

– Valencia distanced themselves from the pack with their 1-0 win over Málaga and now possess a six-point lead over Mallorca for third-place and an automatic berth into the group stage of next year’s Champions League.  As for the final Champions League spot and the two Europa League places, every team involved for those European invitations apparently wants to back into those invites rather than earning them.  No team ranked fourth through ninth won in Round 29, and these teams have been so mediocre that Atlético Madrid, the model of inconsistency this season, now sits in eighth place after they defeated Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on Thursday.

– Getafe manager Míchel provided the quote of the round about his own dismissal late in his team’s 2-4 pounding by Real Madrid:

“All I said was, ‘If you were from Madrid you’d have protested it.’  The linesman understood that I disrespected him, and I was sent off, but I have never spoken about referees or shown disrespect.”

George Orwell would be proud of Míchel for his valiant attempt at doublethink.

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