In the secluded setting of the Anoeta on Sunday evening, Real Sociedad and Real Betis played out a thrilling encounter as they both target Spain’s fourth Champions League qualification spot. 3-3 it finished after Betis had raced into a 2-0 lead before being pegged back to 3-2 down, which was cancelled out by Dorlan Pabon’s second goal of the game just after the hour mark. Betis stayed within a point of their Basque opponents and moved to within 3 of Malaga who currently occupy the coveted fourth spot.
It was a typical Betis performance founded on a willingness to defend on the edge of their own penalty area and strike venomously on the counter-attack, utilising the pace of Pabon and Jorge Molina, and the strong link-up play of Joel Campbell, the striker on loan from Arsenal. Sociedad registered 56% of possession in the topsy-turvy game and got their reward from a clinical second half, but the performance was enough from Pepe Mel’s side to suggest they could make a viable claim for European football in the latter stage of this season.
It will be the latest achievement in the dramatic recent resurgence of a club that suffered relegation to the Segunda in 2009 and were faced with the financial uncertainty of majority shareholder Ruiz De Lopera being charged with fraud. After attempting to sell off his shares for a reduced price, the courts froze his company, Lopera shareholdings, before a takeover could be completed and he was subsequently voted off the board in favour of Luis Oliver, the businessman who tried to purchase the club off Lopera.Gone are the days of mismanagement at board level at the expense of a club that constantly scraped the bottom of La Liga. Eventual relegation sparked mass protests to remove Lopera from a 15 year reign that had turned stale and 65,000 fans got their wish. Though they had to slide down from the top division, the green side of Andalusia promised a brighter future. Antonio Tapia was placed in charge for their first year in the Segunda but ultimately paid with his job after failing to direct Betis back to the Primera in his first year. They then turned to Mel, the ex-striker who had been sacked in the February of 2010 by Rayo Vallecano, and he has seemed to finally give stability to a club that had passed through 11 managers since the turn of the century.
The Verdiblancos stormed back to La Liga under Mel, finishing his first campaign in charge as champions of the second division, scoring a mammoth 85 goals in the process. 26 of them were scored by attacking midfielder Ruben Castro who went on to hit 16 as Betis achieved a respectable 13th placed finish in their first year back at the top in 2012. Now the upward curve is continuing and Castro, the 31 year old technician who can play right across the front, is at it again, he is the club’s top scorer with 12 goals.
Castro was missing on Sunday night as Mel moved to 4-4-2 with Campbell partnering Pabon up front. The manager has shifted between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 throughout the season and it is testament to the versatility of Castro, and the strength in depth available to the manager, that he can move fluidly between systems in attack which is based on a solid defence that has tallied 10 clean sheets so far this season.
A narrow 4-2-3-1 is the favoured system with Campbell and Juan Carlos offering directness and energy in the wide positions while Salva Sevilla, boasting an impressive pass completion record of 81% and a threat with incisive through-balls, shares the attacking midfield berth with Castro. Molina is the usual centre-forward and has 9 goals from that position, but it’s not set in stone, he started wide-right on Sunday as Mel chose the strength and energy of Pabon and Campbell in attack.Though not the most potent of forward lines, Sunday’s front-line share just 7 goals this campaign, but their pace and intelligent movement is effective at producing room for others, it is not a coincidence that Betis’ top scorer is an attacking midfielder by trade and Sunday’s other scorer, Molina, got his goal running in from the right.
It is this vibrancy and fluidity in forward areas that gives Mel’s side, more comfortable drawing opponents into their half before striking on the break, its attacking thrust. One may notice the 20 goals hit away from home, the most in the league apart from Barcelona and Real Madrid, as being testament to their effectiveness on the break as opposed to when playing at home, where they have managed just 17 and the least out of the top 13, where opponents are likely to sit off and ask Betis to break them down.
The inter-changing front-line is given a platform by Spanish duo Canas and Benat, a combative pair of defensive midfielders who share 19 yellow cards for the season, indicating their fondness for a tackle. Canas is the anchor while Benat is left to spray passes around in the midfield, acting as Betis’ most creative player this year with 7 assists and an average of 2 chances created per-game.
There is still a lot of work for Mel to do though, only Valencia have conceded more than their 38 out of the top 7 and a creaky defence cost them all three points in Sociedad. While goals can also be a problem (they have a modest 37), last week’s 3-0 win over Malaga ended a run of four games without one. However, they sit 7th in La Liga, the highest they have been since the heady days of 2005 when they finished fourth.
A lot has passed through the green half of Seville in the last eight years including drastic upheaval of players and managers, financial controversy and a troublesome relegation. Yet with their 50 year old coach and a predominantly Spanish squad that contains just 8 non-natives, they look to have finally found the formula for success. That success this year, may be a Europa League place, a great achievement for Mel considering he took the reigns of a second division club just 2 and a half years ago. They also sit three places above bitter city rivals Sevilla, the good times seem to be back at the Villamarin.
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