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Girona top of La Liga: Michel’s men can win the title in Spain thanks to City Football Group connection and more

Adam Bate visits Girona to find out how and why this small club in Catalonia is top of La Liga and showing Spain’s biggest clubs how it is done; it is a story of Michel’s magnificent coaching, smart recruitment and the support of City Football Group…

Michel's Girona are top of La Liga
Image: Michel's Girona are top of La Liga but can they stay there? There are reasons to believe...

On the day that Real Madrid conjured the sort of result that sparks talk of titles, Dani Carvajal’s 99th-minute winner completing a comeback from two down against Almeria, Girona produced a performance truly worthy of champions.

Seville were smashed 5-1 in the Estadio Montilivi on Sunday. La Liga's smallest stadium is providing its biggest story. Seven years after playing in the competition for the first time, Girona top it. Michel and his team deserve it. Spanish football is being taught a lesson.

Girona has never been a football city. It is best known as a bastion of Catalan independence. Yellow ribbons symbolising that struggle adorn every street sign and most of the drain pipes. Tourists travel to see the sites of their favourite Game of Thrones scenes.

Artem Dovbyk (Girona FC) celebrates after scoring during La Liga football match between Girona FC and Sevilla FC, at Montilivi Stadium on January 21, 2024 in Girona, Spain.
Image: Artem Dovbyk celebrates after scoring against Sevilla as Jesus Navas looks on

The emphasis is changing. The theme song from that show is part of the pre-match ritual at Girona but it is the team they are talking about now. Over on Placa dels Mercaders, the flag of independence draped from the balcony has a Girona one for company.

There is a palpable sense of fun to all this. Michel, the head coach, spoke of expecting a "super complicated game" against Sevilla but the home crowd were celebrating with Mexican waves and Poznan-style bouncing long before the final whistle.

Sevilla scored first and early but were behind within five minutes and all but beaten within 10. It is 22 points won from losing positions now, more than any side in Europe. As Barcelona boss Xavi said of Girona, they do not give up and they believe in what they do.

How is this happening? The short version of the tale tells of the investment from City Football Group. The long one takes in downs as well as ups, the smart decision-making, the talented coach making a name for himself, and some seriously talented players.

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Artem Dovbyk was the hero against Sevilla. Jude Bellingham no longer stands alone as La Liga's top scorer, joined on 14 goals in the race for the Pichichi Trophy after Dovbyk's six-minute hat-trick on Sunday. The robust Ukrainian forward dominated Sergio Ramos.

Out wide, Jesus Navas, another of Sevilla's World Cup winners, could do nothing to stop Savio setting up his first two goals. The brilliant young Brazilian is an old-fashioned winger with new tricks, all feints and flicks with the end product to accompany them.

At right-back, there is the diminutive Yan Couto, his pink-haired compatriot on loan from Man City. Left-back Miguel Gutierrez, who moves inside to cause confusion, plays as if he is. In midfield, Ivan Martin and Portu find time and space where there is none.

Even 19-year-old debutant Antal Yaakobishvili was imperious.

Artem Dovbyk (Girona FC) celebrates with his teammate Savio (Girona FC) after scoring during La Liga football match between Girona FC and Sevilla FC, at Montilivi Stadium on January 21, 2024 in Girona, Spain.
Image: Artem Dovbyk and Savio were the key figures in Girona's thrashing of Sevilla

There will be those who point to the connection with City Football Group as the catch-all explanation for all that has followed. "There has always been that belief that with the shared knowledge and experience we could add 20 per cent," Ceri Bowley tells Sky Sports.

Bowley was head of coaching support at City Football Group, working closely with Girona, and continues to follow their story. "We could help teams punch above their weight. But that does not mean they would ever have expected to be where they are now."

The impact is both overt and overplayed. There is no doubt that the talent assembled at Girona would not have been possible without help. But the budget is modest. It is a triumph of organisation and imagination, coaching and recruitment, more than money.

"It shows the importance of aligning everything," says Bowley.

"I don't think you can attribute it to a single factor. It is the coaching, the recruitment and the support of the group."

At its centre is Michel, the coach who took Girona into La Liga and now to the top of it. That was his third promotion to the first division, having previously achieved the feat with both Rayo Vallecano and Huesca. "He came with a track record," says Bowley.

Quique Cercal, the club's sporting director, had wanted to appoint him before Huesca did. "I backed off. I did not listen to my instincts." Better late than never. Michel, now linked with every job from Madrid to Newcastle, has proved the ideal fit, as Bowley explains.

"He came with a confidence but not an arrogance which was important. He had belief in what he wanted to do but he was humble enough that he was open and wanted to learn. They are good qualities and they are why he is where he is now. He is a good guy.

"I remember going to Girona and him telling me to put the team on the board for tomorrow and we had a conversation around it. He would challenge you but he was curious, a nice balance between having convictions and asking opinions. That is him in a nutshell."

Miguel Angel Sanchez Michel head coach of Girona FC looks on during the LaLiga EA Sports match between CA Osasuna and Girona FC at El Sadar on November 4, 2023, in Pamplona, Spain. AFP7 04/11/2023 (Europa Press via AP)
Image: Michel has worked closely with City Football Group who acquired Girona in 2017

It hints at an overlooked aspect of the City influence, the synergy benefits that give them their edge over others. When Michel was worried about his defence being uncomfortable with a high line, they had been through it before in Melbourne.

"The natural thing is for defenders to worry about space in behind. How do you get them on the front foot? He would ask, 'What session have you got for my back three?' We had loads of conversations around stopping the ball at source to give the defence confidence."

It is one thing to identify, another to implement. He has done that. Daley Blind, the experienced Dutch defender with such a key role to play at Girona given the youngsters around him, speaks of Michel enjoying a personal connection with the players.

A fine player in his day, now 48, he still has one of the best left foots in training and he leads those sessions himself. "He is a pitch guy," says Bowley. "That was important for that group of players. He leads them. He wants to coach. He is enthusiastic about coaching."

He is savvy enough to have adapted along the way. Bowley suspects that starting off in the second division allowed time for this to take shape. Patience was needed. In the autumn of 2021, Girona were languishing in that second tier after losing six of their first 10 games.

"We were willing to wait but we needed signs. What is the data telling us? Is there engagement from the players and staff? I could see that there was. They were all on board. That is a good sign. They wanted to learn from him. Those things were key for us.

"The other thing that gave us confidence is that we could see the signs that we had seen in Melbourne and Mumbai. You get the confidence that you have seen it before and if you keep doing what you are doing it will turn. It was all part of the learning."

Last season, Girona had to evolve into more of a counter-attacking team, utilising the pace of Taty Castellanos to punish opponents on the break. The forward left for Lazio in the summer and Michel is playing a more balanced game now, more recognisably City.

Quique had always said that if Girona could settle in La Liga then they would be able to achieve great things. Now, they can play out from the back, starving the opposition of the ball, but then sit back into a lower block and counter-punch once ahead too.

"They have kept the essence of the style but they have adapted in games. They still have the counter-attack but they maintain pressure for longer. When they can play they will play. But they also recognised when they cannot do that. They have evolved again."

It says much for Michel. He treads that line between styles, between confidence and arrogance, between being a friend to players and demanding more. Against Sevilla, he yelled as loudly when Cristhian Stuani put in a challenge as when he forced in a fifth.

The coach is one of many at Girona destined for bigger salaries, but bigger things? That will be difficult. Bigger than leading Spain's big three in the title race? Bigger than getting one over on football royalty? No wonder this adventure is stirring Catalan pride.

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Michel, the man from Madrid who is learning the Catalan language in an effort to embrace the culture, still refuses to accept it is a race his team are in. "Madrid are not our rival," he said after this latest win, their biggest of the season so far. "We do not fight for La Liga."

And yet, there they are, top of the table with 52 points. For all Michel's talk of targeting a top-10 finish, despite Bowley stressing that this was "never the expectation" and Quique preaching humility from "the team with the least history in La Liga", it is the reality.

Girona are more than contenders, they are playing the best football on the peninsular. And unlike their new rivals, Europe is an ambition for the autumn rather than a distraction in the spring.

On Sunday, the 80s hit 'Don't Stop Believing' reverberated around the Montilivi. Girona are entitled to start.

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