It’s not often that a fanatical, long-suffering fan base can enjoy a state of nirvana and schadenfreude simultaneously, but that’s the privileged position the supporters of Real Betis find themselves in right now.
Just in case those are unfamiliar words, nirvana is “an idyllic state or place,” while “schadenfreude” is the German word to explain the malicious delight you take at someone else’s misfortune. The reason “Beticos” are experiencing such bliss is that their team are joint-top of LaLiga, unbeaten, playing magically and bristle with competitive aggression just as their hated, ultra-successful city rivals, Sevilla, are stinking the house out in 15th place. As fate would have it, there’s an immediate litmus test of what’s ailing Los Rojiblancos and whether Betis can go sailing on, when Sevilla host menacing Barcelona this weekend and Manuel Pellegrini’s green-and-white army pit themselves against the Spanish and European champions Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.
It’s only hypothetical, of course, but imagine the sweet feeling for Betis Nation if Xavi’s resurgent Barca were to win at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday evening, leaving Sevilla near the relegation zone, and if Betis were to win at the newly refurbished Bernabeu against also unbeaten Madrid? And before you get started, hold your horses: it’s not that unlikely a scenario.
Did you know that Madrid haven’t won any of their last five home matches against Betis, scoring just once in those 450 minutes, and that Los Verdiblancos have taken nine of the last 15 points available at the Bernabeu?
Conclusion? Don’t, under any circumstances, miss that match on Saturday.
At the heart of what’s happening at this ultra-passionate (but underachieving) club, is, of course, their coach. Tall and austere, permanently showing the world his poker face, Pellegrini — who is nicknamed “The Engineer” and had a successful five-year spell at Villarreal from 2004 — is gifted, likeable and interesting. And don’t forget: he’s not only the ex-Madrid manager, he’s the man who coached Karim Benzema‘s first season with Los Blancos, one that ended with Pep Guardiola’s first sentence as title-winning coach in the Camp Nou news conference being: “I want to congratulate Manuel Pellegrini and his players at Real Madrid because I’ve admired their attitude this season. Without them, I don’t believe we’d have registered 99 points. Their play and the way they’ve competed has dignified the institution of Real Madrid. I want them to know that there are people at this club who admire what they have attempted to do. It’s been exemplary.”
No-one at Madrid agreed, however, and despite taking that title battle down to the final day of the season, Pellegrini was sacked after one year in charge. He’s had other successes since then — with Malaga, Manchester City and West Ham among his former clubs in Europe — but this project at Betis might well be his signature piece.
Their Copa de Rey win last season, clinched in a titanic, tense, moody battle with Valencia in Los Verdiblancos‘s home city, Sevilla, was only their second trophy (depending one whether you count the second division) in 45 years. Almost as fundamental is the fact that Betis play well. Really well. Convincing, fun, daring, attacking football: you could say they are “exemplary” again.
Last Friday, they went top of LaLiga by beating Osasuna. The two highlights were Borja Iglesias‘ world-class goal — I’d argue there wasn’t a better strike anywhere in Europe this weekend — and the utter bedlam when Pellegrini’s team went down to 10 men because of German Pezzella‘s red card. Instead of voicing any panic, the stadium erupted into a ferocious display of ear-shattering, raucous “we’ll-see-you-through-this-boys!’ singing, cheering and dancing as they urged out-numbered Betis to defend the one-goal margin.
It worked, too, as they held out for the final 15 minutes and took all three points.
In any sport, when you get a fusion of talent, tactics and determination from the athletes, plus passionate evangelical faith and enjoyment from the crowd, it can be life-enhancing to witness. For his part in it all, Pellegrini finds it easy to explain his formula.
“At Betis, I wanted to establish a certain style of football, like I’ve done at every club,” he said. “I like my teams to play fast, direct football while maintaining possession. I want to see them moving out of our own half with as few touches as possible. Then, in the last third, it’s all about converting our chances. It takes so much work to make it to the final third that you really need to capitalise by putting the ball away.”
Laudable to aim for and hard to achieve, but it’s truly lovely to watch.
One of his mercurial tricks is that you could pick six or seven of Pellegrini’s mainstay footballers and not only conclude, without hesitation, that they’re playing the best football of their career, but that they’ve achieved that benchmark since the 67-year-old Chilean took charge.
Nabil Fekir was one of those precious players who erroneously believed that talent and outrageous chutzpah would be enough to make him special. Now the Frenchman is leaner, more muscular and far more effective. He’s also much wealthier due to earning a succulent contract extension. The Betis fans would walk over hot coals for him; to them, he’s a deity. There’s your Pellegrini influence.
Centre-forward Iglesias is suddenly scoring for fun again. He admitted after beating Osasuna that “I’m in the best form of my career” and the man known as “El Panda” now permanently wears that infectious smile on his face. At this point, it’s not outrageous to suggest that he’s got a chance of going to the 2022 World Cup with Spain later this year.
How about Alex Moreno, their flying wing-back? Or free-scoring Juanmi? How about Guido Rodriguez, who arrived as a shy Argentine midfielder and couldn’t conceive that he might one day play alongside Lionel Messi for the national team, but who’s now a central figure for the Albiceleste and a Copa America winner? All these guys, and several others, are hitting new heights thanks to Pellegrini’s teaching.
As “The Engineer” himself points out: “A team is made up of individual players and each has a maximum level he can aspire to. My job is to make sure each player performs at his full capacity in as many games as possible. As a team, there’s no point if the four up front are playing brilliantly if the four at the back are struggling.
“It’s not just my love of football that drives me. It’s a need to be constantly challenged. I’ve always been like that. Even as a kid, I loved taking on new challenges, and I’ve continued do that in my career. For example: when I left Madrid, the offers came pouring in, many from high-level clubs, but I opted for Malaga because I was so impressed with the vision and ambition of the club and because I knew it would be a huge challenge. It was probably the best decision of my life.”
Now for some home truths about the team who will try to upset the European champions this weekend.
Their squad is too thin in certain areas to win the title. Given a grueling domestic season and a Europa League campaign to plan for, it’ll be a magnificent achievement if they can finish in the top six, let alone top-four and qualify for the Champions League. So, arguably, the key is for us to just to sit back and enjoy watching them while the going is good.
Try watching their midfield anchor, for example: it’s a joy. William Carvalho is constantly talked about as a “large salary,” someone who “needs to be offloaded” in order to “balance the books.” It’s true that for a big chunk of the Portuguese midfielder’s time in green and white, he’s been overweight, a touch too slow over short distances and prone to annoying recurring injuries because of his physical state.
Now, however, he’s a central reason for Betis feeling that sense of nirvana. He’s lighter (losing roughly five or six kilos), playing elegant, fun and decisive football. You can start to understand who he considers his reference players.
Carvalho says he compares himself to “Yaya Toure and others like Patrick Vieira, Sergio Busquets or Andrea Pirlo. I also loved Zinedine Zidane, although his wasn’t the same position as mine. I always try to simplify football: to turn difficult things into easy ones. I am like a compass and I decide ‘now the team goes to the right, to the left.’ I set the pace of the game.”
Betis’ director of football Antonio Cordon recently confirmed that “the main job we had with William Carvalho was to ‘recover’ him. It was a very important process for everyone and we’re finally able to see what he is capable of. He is a real asset.” So long as he’s fit and picked to start, it’ll be interesting watching this new version of Carvalho — he’s been involved in two draws and a win in his last three away matches at Madrid — against Los Blancos now that the canny Casemiro has departed and Aurelien Tchouameni seems to be finding life in LaLiga so easy.
Pellegrini has explained about his midfield behemoth: “A squad without William Carvalho is definitely worse than a squad with William Carvalho, I have no doubt about that. I have no interest in William leaving. I have many things I get stuck into him about, because I demand a lot from him and I don’t lay off until William is giving what he is capable of.”
Roll on Real Betis, and roll on Saturday at the Bernabeu.