Girona on top in La Liga after surprisingly good start
BARCELONA, Spain (AP):
Girona’s ceiling this season was expected to be another mediocre finish in the Spanish league. But after six straight wins and an undefeated start, the small club from Spain’s northeastern corner surprisingly sits at the top of the standings.
Next up? Nothing less than a visit by Real Madrid tomorrow.
“We have to enjoy this moment. The game against Madrid will be precious,” Girona coach Míchel Sánchez said after his team became the leaders of Spain’s top league for the first time following a 2-1 comeback at Villarreal on Wednesday.
Girona, who lead Madrid by one point and Barcelona by two, have only dropped points when they drew 1-1 at Real Sociedad in their opening match. Since then, the team that is partly controlled by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership has also beaten Getafe, Sevilla, Las Palmas, Granada and Mallorca.
Girona were taken over by Abu Dhabi ownership in 2017 when it bought a 44.3 per cent share in the Catalan club. Pere Guardiola, the brother of Man City manager Pep Guardiola, is the managing director of Girona Football Group, which has an equal 44.3 per cent share in the club.
After stints with Rayo Vallecano and Huesca, the 47-year-old Míchel helped Girona return to the top division at the end of the 2021-22 season. He then guided them to a 10th-place finish last season, when they earned some impressive wins like their 4-2 victory over Madrid at home thanks to four goals by former striker Taty Castellanos.
Girona were supposed to have trouble after Castellanos left for Lazio, holding midfielder Oriol Romeu joined Barcelona, and Rodrigo Riquelme returned to Atletico Madrid.
But in came Ukraine striker Artem Dovbyk, winger Savinho, Netherlands defender Daley Blind, goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, and Barcelona pair Pablo Torre and Éric García on loan. They quickly adapted to a strong base led by midfielders Aleix García and Yangel Herrera, centre back David López and forward Viktor Tsygankov.
Girona lead the league in scoring along with third-place Barcelona with 18 goals through seven matches. And they have spread the goals around to make them difficult to defend with 11 scorers. Dovbyk and Herrera lead the team with three goals each.
Míchel, who likes his team to defend in their half and hit on the counterattack, praised his entire team, while asking them to “keep their feet on the ground,” after the win at Villarreal. He also anticipates a duel tomorrow between Savinho, Girona’s 19-year-old Brazilian winger, and Vinícius Júnior.
“Since Vinícius, I have not seen a player with the one-on-one skills that Savinho has,” Míchel told Cadena SER radio. “We know that we will have a hard time with Vinícius on Saturday, but we will enjoy a good battle between those two.”
Vínicius saw his first minutes after a month-long injury layoff on Wednesday when he played about a half hour in Madrid’s 2-0 win over Las Palmas.
The city of Girona has for years been a hotbed of Catalan nationalism, but the team’s rise has also put it at the centre of Spanish sports. Besides the results, Míchel, who is from Madrid, has also won over Girona’s fans by learning to speak Catalan, the local language spoken alongside Spanish.