After reaching La Liga for the first time in their 87-year history this season, Girona’s sole target would have been to make sure they stay there. The tiny Catalan club gained promotion after finishing a distant second to Levante in the Segunda División, and although they were tipped by most to stay up (largely due to their connection with Manchester City), very few people would have expected them to achieve this target so comfortably, and so far ahead of schedule.
Even the most optimistic Gironista would never have expected them to be 23 points clear of the relegation zone with three-quarters of the season gone. They are closer to Atlético Madrid in second than to the relegation zone, and they are now in with a very realistic chance of qualifying for the Europa League.
They sit in seventh place, just two points behind fifth-placed Sevilla. In all likelihood, the top seven will qualify for Europe this season, giving Girona a huge chance to achieve European qualification in their debut top-flight season.
Many managers would play down talk of European qualification in this situation, but not Girona boss Pablo Machín. With the target of survival achieved, he is using the prospect of the Europa League as a means of motivating his players, and warding off complacency. “When you have achieved your first goal, the team realises that it is not there by chance,” he said after Friday’s 2-0 home win over Deportivo La Coruña.
There have been suggestions that the association with Manchester City has given them an unfair advantage, helping to propel them up the table. While something doesn’t sit quite right about the ‘City Football Group’ owning a 44.3% stake in Girona, and Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere owning another 44.3%, it has to be said that City’s influence on Girona’s successful season has been overstated. Of the Manchester City loanees, only Pablo Maffeo has been a regular in the side. Aleix García and Douglas Luiz have been used sparingly, from the bench if at all.
There have been several other factors that have contributed more to their success this season than City’s billions, not least the organisation and tactical discipline laid down by Machín. He prefers to play with three centre-backs, two wing-backs, two in central midfield and two attacking midfielders behind a lone striker. The question of how to set up against this formation is one that opposing managers have struggled to answer all season.
The goalscoring form of Cristhian Stuani has also helped a great deal. The former Middlesbrough man has hit the net 15 times so far this season, his best goalscoring return for eight years. He has been ably assisted by Portu, who has contributed a personal best 11 goals to his side’s cause.
Girona’s excellent home form has also been a major feature of their season. At the start of the season, temporary seating was added to the Estadi Montilivi to increase the capacity from 9,500 to 13,500. The added home support has helped them turn Montilivi into an impenetrable fortress. They have won their last six games at home, scoring 15 and conceding none. The last opposing team to score at Montilivi was Alavés back on 4th December. If they can maintain this form, then they will be a shoo-in to finish in the European places, which would be a fitting reward for a remarkable season.
Now that they have broken into the top flight, Girona are well-equipped to stay there for the foreseeable future. Although the impact of the link with Manchester City has been minimal this year, the financial resources available to them will certainly help in the long run, particularly in a league where the distribution of TV money is geared so heavily towards the established, elite clubs.
Having experimented with the system this year, City will surely be willing to send more loanees now that Girona are established in the top division. The chances are they will send an even higher calibre of player next season, particularly if there is a chance of giving them experience of European competition.
The voices of those who question the ethics of Girona essentially being owned by Manchester City and the unfair advantage this brings will no doubt grow louder the more successful the club becomes, and with good reason, but the people of Girona aren’t concerned with such matters at present.
The town is swelling with pride at their local team, who have scaled heights never before reached and bloodied a few noses along the way. Most people in Girona support Barcelona, but this club could soon take a few fans away from their exalted neighbours in this corner of Spain.
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