Before last Sunday’s clash between Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, Diego Simeone had suggested that his opponents could challenge for the title this season.
“Mind games” was the initial reaction. Put a little pressure on the home side who had begun the season encouragingly.
The second thought was that Simeone was just being nice, bigging up his compatriot Jorge Sampaoli who succeeded Unai Emery at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in the summer.
But then Sevilla beat Atleti, their first defeat this season, and hit top spot in La Liga – albeit only for the afternoon – and suddenly Simeone’s suggestion gained a little credence.
On Saturday afternoon, however, Sampaoli’s men only managed a disappointing draw at struggling Sporting Gijon.
Sevilla failed to capitalise on Luciano Vietto’s delicious early finish and missed out on the chance to go top once more. Watching them play, however, the idea that they could be title challengers did look rather overblown
But they have shown enough in their first 10 league games to suggest that they could challenge for Spain’s fourth Champions League spot this time round.
Six, wins, three draws and only the one defeat leaves them only three points behind leaders Real Madrid with a quarter of the season gone.
In fact, La Liga has quite a competitive look about it at present, with only five points separating the top five clubs.
Ominously, however, the top three places are once again filled by the usual suspects.
And no matter how well Sevilla’s hierarchy and particularly their acclaimed sporting director Monchi have done in rebuilding a club that 15 years ago was on the brink of collapse, breaking up that party is most probably beyond them.
But a strong start and a level of consistency over the rest of the season makes Champions League qualification a realistic proposition, as Villareal demonstrated last term.
Sevilla, of course, are already operating in that Promised Land, and if results go their way this week, they’ll qualify for the knockout stages of the competition for the first time since 2008-09.
Escaping their Champions League group will also be notable for another reason. It will ensure that Los Nervionenses will not be able to defend their Europa League title, a competition they have won in each of the last three seasons.
That’s progress, of course, but it will also take away the backdoor through which they have gained entry to Europe’s premier club competition in the past two years.
So if they want to rub shoulders with the great and good next season and maintain their upward trajectory, they will either have to win the Champions League outright – unlikely – or finish in the top four in Spain, something they have failed to do since 2009-10.
That suggests a big task ahead for Sampaoli. After all, for all Emery’s success in Seville, he never finished higher that fifth.
The new man’s impact at this stage is a little hard to assess.
The Argentine appears to be building on the foundations of his predecessor – adding a little more aggression in terms of how Sevilla impose themselves on games and puttiing a greater emphasis on possession.
And while it is early days, he should certainly get credit for how smoothly he has settled into the job and for having done so despite Sevilla losing some of last season’s stars in Kevin Gameiro, Ever Banega and Grzegorz Krychowiak.
In fact, Monchi engaged in the kind of summer transfer churn with which moneyballers Sevilla have become synonymous, overseeing the arrival of 12 players, at a cost of some €60 million, while 15 exited, raising a more than respectable €85 million.
That Sampaoli has sailed serenely through such potentially choppy waters is a major plus for the Argentine.
Perhaps his success as an international manager with Chile (he guided them to Copa America glory in 2015) has helped him settle in Seville.
After all, in the international game, managers have to deal the hand they are dealt in terms of the players at their disposal. And so too do managers at Sevilla, who don’t have a final say in terms of who walks in and out of the dressing room door.
But we need more time, perhaps another 10 games, to better assess where he and Sevilla are going this season. The league title is out of the question – but that juicy fourth shouldn’t be.