Will they? Won't they?

Real Madrid's own stuttering form over the past few weeks has at least helped to retain a hint of unpredictability at LaLiga's summit, but it's difficult to not think Sevilla keep blowing their opportunities.

It's not likely to get any easier on Sunday, either. They headed into this matchday six points behind Madrid, which in itself certainly isn't insurmountable.

But then Madrid beat Rayo Vallecano, and Sevilla's visitors are local rivals Real Betis, who are absolutely flying and chasing a victory that would lift them to within just two points of their neighbours.

Prior to Sevilla's slender – and ultimately irrelevant – 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday in the Europa League, the only side to have beaten them this year is Betis, who were 2-1 victors in the Copa del Rey in mid-January.

Since then injuries have played a significant role for Sevilla and they could conceivably be without Gonzalo Montiel, Diego Carlos, Jules Kounde, Lucas Ocampos, Erik Lamela, Suso, Anthony Martial and Karim Rekik on Sunday.

Several of those have been absent for other games in the last few weeks, and in the cases of Lamela and Suso, for much of the season. As such, since that defeat to Betis, Sevilla have won only two of seven games in all competitions.

But to many, a potential obstacle for Sevilla in their quest for an unlikely title triumph had long been identifiable, and it will only be made even more obvious against Betis.

Replacing the irreplaceable?

In 2020, Sevilla saw Ever Banega bring his second spell at the club to an end. Across his total six years at the club, either side of a single season with Inter, the Argentinian playmaker had been a fundamental part of the team.

A feisty competitor, excellent dribbler and possessor of wonderful vision and passing abilities, Banega's presence meant Sevilla always had a viable creative option in the middle of the pitch, even if using the flanks was a key concept for both Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui.

Since Banega departed for Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab, Sevilla simply haven't replaced him adequately. Ivan Rakitic, while still capable, isn't the same kind of player; Papu Gomez hasn't had consistency in any one position; and Oliver Torres has been unable to step into his former team-mate's shoes.

 

That creative role in midfield would be considered by most Sevilla fans as the final piece of the puzzle. The other two central positions are filled ably by Joan Jordan, an effective facilitator, and Fernando, who sits deeper to sweep up and help out with Diego Carlos and Kounde, something he's done to great success since joining.

But from a creative standpoint, Sevilla need only glance across town to see what they are missing in that area of the pitch.

Now, of course, the make-up of a midfield can have a major impact on other parts of the team, so were Sevilla to have a more penetrative central trio, there's every reason to suggest they'd not be as solid at the back.

But with Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir strutting their stuff for Betis, it's difficult to not at least wonder where Sevilla might be with a more positive outlook in midfield.

Sevilla's glaring weakness is Betis' biggest weapon

It cannot be overstated just how good a job Manuel Pellegrini is doing at Betis. Since the end of 2019-20, they have paid a transfer fee for just one player at €3.8million – in the same period, they've lost roughly €60m of talent, yet here they are, looking certainties for a Champions League spot.

Undoubtedly essential to Betis are Canales and Fekir, both of whom were exceptional and scored in the January Copa defeat of Sevilla.

Their influence makes Betis a real danger through the middle of the pitch, an area they are heavily reliant on.

We managed to isolate their key passes that have been played from the central column of the attacking third, and the outcome is impressive.

 

Betis are hugely active in this area, with as many as 36.7 per cent of their key passes being made from the zone in question. Only Real Mallorca (40.2 per cent) are busier here than Betis.

Sevilla, on the other hand, create just 25.2 per cent of their chances from the middle third, which is the lowest proportion of all 20 teams in LaLiga.

In fact, no Sevilla player has managed more than seven key passes in this section of the pitch – four Betis players have more than 10, with Fekir (14), Canales (21) and holding midfielder William Carvalho (12) accounting for 47 between them. That's only 11 fewer than Sevilla's entire squad.

 

Of course, a key element of Sevilla's setup is that they attack from the flanks, but it should be pointed out that Betis' proportion of touches out wide in the attacking half is only 2.2 per cent less, so they cannot be accused of neglecting the wings.

The difference is Sevilla are massively (too?) reliant on attacking from wide positions because they don't possess players with the kind of incisiveness that Betis do in midfield, both in terms of passing and ability on the ball.

 

It all comes back to an inability to replace Banega.

Failure to win at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Sunday will surely end Sevilla's title hopes as they would be left nine points adrift of Madrid.

While injuries have many fans pessimistic anyway, few would be surprised if it's in midfield where Sevilla's dreams are crushed.

Sevilla kept up their LaLiga title bid as Lucas Ocampos' 88th-minute strike sealed a dramatic 2-1 home win over Atletico Madrid on Saturday.

The visitors looked like they would go back to the Spanish capital with a point after Felipe had cancelled out Ivan Rakitic's stunning early strike.

Ocampos had other ideas, though, slamming home with just two minutes remaining to inflict a third straight top-flight defeat on Diego Simeone's men.

The result moved second-placed Sevilla five points behind leaders Real Madrid, who play Cadiz on Sunday, while champions Atleti are a whopping 13 points adrift of their city rivals.

 

Ivan Rakitic is planning talks with Sevilla team-mate Jules Kounde in a bid to lift his spirits after a move to Chelsea did not materialise.

Kounde has established himself as one of the best defenders in LaLiga over the past two seasons, prompting interest from a number of elite clubs.

Reports of interest from Chelsea were persistent throughout the recent transfer window, and Sevilla sporting director Monchi confirmed the European champions had made an approach.

It was a move that would have appealed to Kounde, Monchi confirmed, but the two clubs were unable to agree a fee, as Sevilla held out for the player's €80million release clause.

Kounde appeared well suited to a top Premier League side, ranking third among LaLiga defenders for aerial duels won (205) and sixth for successful passes (3,536) since the start of the 2019-20 season – an effective blend of physicality and finesse.

Yet veteran Rakitic hopes the 22-year-old can move on quickly.

"Hopefully, on his return from his national team, we can have a moment to be able to talk, sincerely, so that he knows that he has the confidence of us, that we are his second family," Rakitic said in a wide-ranging interview with ELDesmarque.

"It is very important to us. The first thing we need is for him to feel at ease, to be at his best and to know that everything we do, we do together."

Already a complete defender – also counted in LaLiga's top 25 for duels won (339, 11th), recoveries (303, 22nd) and clearances (191, 23rd) since his arrival – Rakitic wants Kounde to kick on again and show his quality.

"He is a boy, 22 years old, very young," Rakitic added. "He has been here for some spectacular years, that's why he attracts the interest of big clubs with those amounts.

"He has earned that with his game. The most important thing is that he understands that this has already happened.

"Besides being young, he has a lot of experience. He no longer has to teach anything to anyone. He is already a well-rounded player.

"He still has to improve, of course, but he has to continue to enjoy football. It doesn't help him now to be down, sad, or angry. He has to lift his spirits." 

Zinedine Zidane was left fuming by the decision to award Sevilla a penalty for handball against Eder Militao as Real Madrid were held to a 2-2 draw that means the title is no longer in their hands.

A gripping game at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano on Sunday came to life in the latter stages as a remarkable twist left Madrid trailing 2-1 with just over 10 minutes to go.

Madrid had seemingly earned themselves a glorious opportunity to go 2-1 up as Karim Benzema led a break and was brought down in the Sevilla box by Yassine Bounou.

But a VAR review overturned the decision because a handball offence by Militao was spotted at the other end at the start of the move, and Ivan Rakitic converted the spot-kick that was subsequently awarded to Sevilla.

While a Toni Kroos effort deep into stoppage time deflected off Eden Hazard to earn a share of the spoils and essentially end Sevilla's slim title hopes, it did Madrid little good as city rivals Atletico remain top with a two-point lead heading into the final three games.

Zidane was seemingly unconvinced by the merits of the penalty against Madrid, suggesting that if Militao – who was not facing the ball when it hit his hand – was guilty of an offence then Sevilla's Joan Jordan should have conceded a penalty earlier in a similar situation.

"I don't understand anything. If there is a Militao handball, there's a Sevilla handball as well," he said.

"I was not convinced by what he [the referee, Juan Martinez Munuera] told me. I never speak about a referee, but today I am angry.

"In the end it is what it is, we are not going to change anything. I'm happy with our game, we deserved more because the second half was spectacular.

"I'm not going to talk about that anymore. We've already talked about it. The referee has to explain the rules to me, but that's it. We're going to fight to the death, until the end."

Pressed on his interpretation of the handball law, Zidane added: "We can talk now… but it will not be clarified now and that is what bothers me.

"We have to think about the three remaining games. I am angry because we deserved the victory."

He was then seemingly encouraged to denounce VAR, though Zidane again pointed to what he felt was handball by Jordan.

"I trust football. What I'm saying is that I saw two hands and they whistled ours."

Real Madrid will require a helping hand if they are to defend their LaLiga crown despite Toni Kroos' late deflected strike rescuing a 2-2 draw at home to Sevilla, whose own hopes now appear over.

Ivan Rakitic had seemingly secured Sevilla a win that would have blown the title race wide open by scoring a late penalty, but deep into second-half stoppage time Kroos saw a hopeful shot hit Diego Carlos, who was unfortunate to see the ball end up in his own net.

Sevilla had taken the lead in the first half thanks to a lovely goal from Fernando, and they were good value for it against a Madrid side that still appeared to be labouring from their Champions League disappointment in midweek – their only moment of excitement coming via a disallowed Karim Benzema header.

They improved in the second period and levelled through Marco Asensio, that goal looking like the catalyst they needed to claim the win that would have put them top, but a switch that saw VAR overturn a Madrid spot-kick because of an incident in the opposing area left Zinedine Zidane's side in trouble.

Although able to cancel out Rakitic's successful kick, the result does Los Blancos little good as they are left two points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid with just three games remaining.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman does not believe Sevilla's 2-0 Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg win over the Blaugrana was a fair reflection of the match, while he also questioned the officials.

Jules Kounde opened the scoring in the first half with a fine individual effort, before former Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic wrapped up a potentially significant win in the latter stages.

Lionel Messi did go close several times for the visitors, with Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou keeping him at bay as he made four saves in total – the Moroccan has saved all 18 shots on target he has had to face in this season's Copa.

The two teams renew hostilities at Camp Nou on March 3 for the second half, though Barca have only progressed past Sevilla once in the Copa when losing the first leg to the Andalusians.

Barca shaded the possession (53.6 per cent) and their 13 shots were two more than the hosts, with Koeman left convinced his side had been hard done by.

"It is a result with too much reward for them," Koeman said. "We have seen a Barca playing well, creating a very clear chances.

"We have put a lot of pressure in the second half. I cannot blame the team. There is another game left, we have to try to win and play the final.

"It is difficult at 2-0. We had opportunities to score, but their defence was good, as was their goalkeeper too, but at home this Barca is capable of anything."

Barca were left frustrated by a moment in the second half where Suso was adjudged to have fouled Jordi Alba just outside the box, yet Koeman and his players were convinced the offence occurred inside the box.

The VAR did not appear to intervene, and this left Koeman bemused.

"Mateu Lahoz [the referee] I think was good in general," Koeman said.

"Of course, there was always doubt with the incident of the penalty, because everyone says it was a penalty, so I have to believe them – not only the Barca people [said it should have been a penalty].

"I don't know why the VAR has not intervened."

Sevilla go into the second leg with a significant advantage and know that an away goal will give Barca a mountain to climb, but they are not getting ahead of themselves, aware the most difficult task is yet to come.

"We knew it was going to be very difficult, the team played a great game, we fought to the end and that is worth it, football gives back to you in this way," Rakitic said.

"But we have half the work left to do in Barcelona."

Coach Julen Lopetegui echoed that sentiment, adding: "The team played a great game against a Barcelona that arrived in good form.

"We played well, we defended well and it was a very beautiful game. Now, we have the most complicated and most difficult thing left, which is to play at the Camp Nou. We are aware of the challenge."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.