La Liga pacesetters Girona not ready to dream of Leicester despite flying start

Catalan club head into Real Madrid clash as Spain's early season surprise package

Eric Garcia, second left, celebrates after scoring Girona's winner against Villarreal on September 27, 2023. EPA
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The L-word appeared in Thursday’s Diari de Girona, the Catalan-language newspaper covering a provincial city where sporting greatness tends to visit mostly on a bike or in running shoes, the area being a favoured training base for star cyclists and athletes.

The L-word in this case is ‘Leicester’, football shorthand for when a club unexpectedly ascends to the summit of a major league. Leicester City remain an international inspiration: They were the upstarts with staying power, winners of the Premier League in 2016.

Girona are currently Leicester-lite, top of La Liga, where they might be temporarily overtaken by fellow Catalans Barcelona by the end of Friday, but who can continue to set the pace in the 2023/24 Spanish title race if they overcome Real Madrid at Estadi Montilivi 24 hours later.

There are sound reasons to believe. Girona and Barca are the only unbeaten sides after seven completed matchdays of the season so far. No side has scored more goals than Girona, and, as Madrid make their plans to combat the surprise leaders, they have specific grounds for concern.

Namely, that’s the quality of delivery of Girona’s crosses and the finishes from them. Two headed goals secured Girona’s comeback from 1-0 down to 2-1 and with it the historic top spot at Villarreal on Wednesday night, goals that will concern Carlo Ancelotti, the Real manager.

In last weekend’s derby at Atletico Madrid, his team were undone, 3-1, by a trio of goals from crosses. Defending crosses looks like a conspicuous Real Madrid frailty.

Taty Castellanos could testify that has been the case for a while. Last April he scored four goals, two headed, three from crosses, when Girona beat Madrid 4-2 in Catalonia, another encouraging precedent except that the Argentinian striker is no longer in Spain, but at Lazio in Italy.

Oriol Romeu, experienced anchor of last season’s midfield, likewise moved in the summer from Girona to Barcelona, and, in what looked like the side’s spine being filleted out, centre-back Santi Bueno left for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Rodrigo Riquelme, the winger whose supply of assists from the left flank had also been part of Girona’s fine first season back after promotion from the second division also returned from his loan to Atletico.

Those departures raised worries in pre-season and are the backdrop that makes this term’s rise all the more eye-catching. Good though Girona were – they missed out on qualifying for the Europa Conference League only on the last day in 2022/23 – they have known enough sharp ups and downs in recent history to be concerned at a high turnover of first-team players.

The club have only enjoyed Spain’s Primera Division for three full seasons in their 93-year history. Two of those were between 2017 and 2019; then they went back down again, and needed three years to rebound.

What they do have is a stable family network. They have since 2017 been part of the City Football Group, the umbrella body centred on European champions Manchester City. There is productive cross-fertilisation between CFG clubs, of principles and sometimes personnel.

The goal that took Girona to the top of the table had a certain resonance in that it was scored by Eric Garcia, the 22-year-old Spain international and set up by Aleix Garcia, wearing the captain’s armband.

Both Garcias – unrelated – are from Catalonia; regional identity is important for Girona. Both used to play for City, where Eric has spent most of his senior professional career, developing as a defender tuned to playing and passing the ball confidently out from the back, essential to the sort of progressive game plan that filters through the CFG’s multi-club structure.

Eric Garcia is on loan from Barcelona, where he was a junior and where he moved back from City in 2021. His top-level savvy was valued by Girona manager Michel to compensate for the summer departures.

The same is true of Daley Blind, formerly of Ajax and Manchester United, who came in to lend his vast experience and versatility across defensive or midfield positions. Ukraine striker Artem Dovbyk was signed to add punch to the forward line. He opened his account eight minutes into his Girona debut and has three goals and two assists already.

The revelation has been the Brazilian winger Savio, 19. “I know it’s a big claim but since [Real Madrid’s] Vinicius Junior burst on to the scene, I’m not sure I’ve seen a talent so brilliant in one-on-one duels,” said Michel, heady with his team’s ascent to the top of Liga, but still cautious not to get carried away.

Michel insists the first priority is to reach enough points – 42, he reckons; Girona are on 19 already – to guard against relegation. “Maybe after 10 more matches the target for the season will have changed,” he said, not quite ready yet to liken his Girona to the Leicester of seven years ago.

Updated: September 29, 2023, 6:25 AM