Here we go again: Saturday evening at the Santiago Bernabéu, the title decider. Eighty-five thousand tickets are long gone, history needs to be written. First against second, 100 goals between them, the rest far behind. The club that is undefeated at home, with more points than anyone in Europe, hosts the club that has not lost, and the leadership of the league awaits the winners. Top scorers face to face, competing for the Pichichi. That symbol of Spain versus the side supported by the Catalan president in exile. A banner the size of a building that suddenly appears in the capital: we come for you. It’s all meant to be a classic, but it isn’t classic.
Related: Lionel Messi: Fans get refunds in Hong Kong after anger over Tokyo performance
This isn’t Real Madrid versus Barcelona; it’s Real Madrid against Girona. Somehow Girona has made it this far; won on Saturday and Míchel Sánchez’s side might think they could actually make it. They beat Barcelona and they beat Atlético Madrid; beat Madrid and it’s real. The club that has never won anything, never even reached Europe, which only reached the first division in 2017, has gone backwards again and is only playing its fourth top season, whose budget is a 14th as big as Madrid’s, could even win the league.
“We want to make history at the end of the season,” said Míchel. “Leaving the Bernabeu summit would also be special, it would leave Girona on everyone’s lips. But we still wouldn’t be candidates to win the competition. There are still fourteen games to go and I think Madrid and Barcelona will win a lot of games. Every match is difficult for us. To win the league you need 85-90 points and we have 56. Madrid can do that, Barcelona can too, and Atlético has done it. It’s not fair for anyone to demand that we win the league.”
There is no question, although there would be disappointment if they were gone, which says something about what they have done; the impossible seems more possible every week. Girona are not meant to be up there, but here they are and they have stubbornly refused to let go. They come into this trip to the Bernabéu having topped the table in nine of the 23 weeks to date, taking first place four times. Only two points behind, which will rise to a fifth if they win, making it 10 weeks in total. So far. No wonder the L-word is being used more and more: Leicester.
Can Girona do what Leicester did? Based on the evidence so far, they can. After collecting 56 points after 23 games and losing only once, they are even better than Claudio Ranieri’s side, who finished with 81 points in 2015/16 and had lost three times.
The problem, as Míchel suggested, probably lies with the other teams. In 2016, Arsenal finished second on 71, having been beaten seven times. Spurs finished third on 70. Madrid are already on 58 with 45 to play for.
‘Whoever wins tomorrow has an advantage, but this [season] is very long,” Carlo Ancelotti said on Friday. “Girona comes with great hope and motivation. They could win the match and lead the league and we have to keep that in mind. But nothing is decided tomorrow: the competition will be decided later, whatever happens.”
Whatever happens, this has been an extraordinary season, reflected in the fact that everyone dares to suggest that this is the title decider. This week, a large banner was erected in central Madrid with echoes of Barcelona President Joan Laporta’s election campaign. Organized by an HR company that is one of Girona’s sponsors, it shows their players celebrating with the slogan: “When your CV isn’t everything.”
Girona has the smallest stadium in the first division, with 13,942, in a city that is far from football crazy and where many people support Barcelona, 99 km away. This is a club with no major trophies – they have one Catalan Super Cup, plus titles in Spain’s third and fourth tiers, but no more – and a side with very few trophies, with Daley Blind alone responsible for more than half of them . Look at the CVs of Girona’s players and what they do have is that there are 37 relegations between them.
The announcement that Brazilian winger Sávio, on loan from Troyes, is joining Manchester City underlined the shortcoming of the fairy tale. Troyes and Girona are owned by the City Football Group. Forty-seven percent of Girona belongs to City; Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere owns 16%. “They have the money to rent a space [for their banner] in Madrid, and that cannot be cheap,” Ancelotti noted.
Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium [pictured] will host a regular-season NFL game in 2025, it has been announced.
The match, between two yet-to-be-named teams, will be the first NFL game to be held 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 highlights the continued expansion of the league’s global footprint and its accelerated ambitions to bring our game to more fans around the world.”
Reports in Spain say the Miami Dolphins or the Chicago Bears, both of which have international marketing rights in the country, will host the match in Madrid.
São Paolo will host a match at the Corinthians Arena in 2024, with the Philadelphia Eagles as the home team. It will be the first NFL game to be played in South America; Mexico City and Toronto have also hosted competitions outside the US in recent years. PA media
And yet that in itself does not entirely explain or detract from what Girona has done on the pitch: only two players belong to the City Group, their salary cap is set at €51 million, compared to €727 million for Madrid, and the most expensive player in their history is Artem Dovbyk, who cost 7 million euros for 50% of his registration. Dovbyk is La Liga’s joint top scorer with Jude Bellingham on 14, which cost €103 million.
This is still a group of players and a coach that shouldn’t have been around here. They also haven’t gone the traditional defensive underdog route, much less the dirty route. They put four past Atlético, four past Barcelona and scored more than anyone else. There have been three 4-2s, a 4-3, a 5-2 and a 5-3. Fourteen players found the net. No one in the league has completed more dribbles or provided more assists than Sávio. Only Kirian Rodríguez has completed more passes than Aleix García. Their only defeat was against Madrid, and even then their shot count was in double figures.
That evening, for the first time in their history, Girona lost the top spot they had claimed. And that was that, or so everyone thought. “We cannot compete on equal terms with Madrid,” said Míchel, but here they face the chance to take it back again. “We are in a fight that we did not expect,” admitted club president Delfí Geli. The competition is at stake on Saturday evening in the Santiago Bernabéu.