Manuel Jimenez, the Sevilla coach, suspected what was coming. At the turn of the year, the Sevilla legend who spent 14 seasons playing at the club before turning to coaching a decade ago, predicted that January was going to be tough. "I just want to get through this month," he said. "It will be very difficult, but we can only do our best."
It was not what the fans wanted to hear, but his honesty was admirable. With the African Cup of Nations looming, Jimenez knew he would be faced with the absence of key players like the forward Freddie Kanoute and a trio of midfielders in Didier Zokora, Arouna Kone and Koffi Romaric - plus an injury to another striker Luis Fabiano, the club's leading scorer. Signs for optimism were few, but the fact that the Champions League, where Sevilla have a winnable tie against CSKA Moscow, resumes in February and not January was one.
Domestically, Sevilla duly lost to Atletico Madrid at the start of the year, but what happened next stunned Spanish football. Jimenez's side went to Camp Nou to play a Barca who had just celebrated becoming world champions. With a weakened eleven, they stunned the Catalans by winning 2-1 with a splendid performance in the Copa del Rey tie. Sevilla lost the return leg to an Andres Iniesta goal, but progressed to the last eight by virtue of their solitary away goal.
Still in the cup, the Andalusians then beat Deportivo La Coruna 3-0 and despite losing the second leg 1-0, sealed a place in the semi-finals midweek. That is only part of the story. Including those cup defeats, Sevilla have lost five games in January. They only ended a run of four successive losses in the league with a narrow victory over plummeting Almeria last week which kept them in contention for the European places they seemed to be slipping further and further away from.
Sevilla had seemed secure in third for much of the season before their dip. Victory last week kept them in sixth, a point behind Deportivo and Mallorca above them, but six behind third place Valencia. They can close that gap to three points tonight as Valencia visit the Sanchez Pizjuan, with Sevilla hoping to avenge a 2-0 opening day defeat. They face a difficult task as Valencia have been beaten just twice all season and boast the second best away record in Spain, after Barca, with seven wins and two draws from their 10 matches on the road. Confidence is high and was boosted further this week when David Villa dismissed more transfer speculation.
"Everyone can relax because I am happy at Valencia and prove this every day," said Villa, who trails Lionel Messi by one goal in the leading scorers' chart. "This season has been extraordinary for Valencia and I am convinced we can finish in the top three. Valencia should be playing in the Champions League and with the stability we finally have at the club and the players here, we are going from strength to strength."
Not that Sevilla need to be reminded as they seek to end their worst month of the season on a positive note. email@example.com Sevilla v Valencia, midnight, Aljazeera Sport + 2