Why Girona sit atop La Liga ahead of Real Madrid showdown

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Girona’s ceiling this season was expected to be another mediocre finish in the Spanish league. But after six straight wins and an undefeated start, the small club from Spain’s northeastern corner surprisingly sits at the top of the standings.

Next up? Nothing less than a visit by Real Madrid on Saturday.

“We have to enjoy this moment. The game against Madrid will be precious,” Girona coach Michel Sanchez said after his team became the leader of Spain’s top league for the first time following a 2-1 comeback at Villarreal on Wednesday.

Girona, which leads Madrid by one point and Barcelona by two, has only dropped points when it drew 1-1 at Real Sociedad in its opening match. Since then, the team that is partly controlled by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership has also beaten Getafe, Sevilla, Las Palmas, Granada and Mallorca.

Girona was taken over by Abu Dhabi ownership in 2017 when it bought a 44.3% share in the Catalan club. Pere Guardiola, the brother of Man City manager Pep Guardiola, is the managing director of Girona Football Group, which has an equal 44.3% share in the club.

After stints with Rayo Vallecano and Huesca, the 47-year-old Michel helped Girona return to the top division at the end of the 2021-22 season. He then guided it to a 10th-place finish last season, when it earned some impressive wins like its 4-2 victory over Madrid at home thanks to four goals by former striker Taty Castellanos.

Girona was supposed to have trouble after Castellanos left for Lazio, holding midfielder Oriol Romeu joined Barcelona, and Rodrigo Riquelme returned to Atletico Madrid.

But in came Ukraine striker Artem Dovbyk, winger Savinho, Netherlands defender Daley Blind, goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, and Barcelona pair Pablo Torre and Eric Garcia on loan. They quickly adapted to a strong base led by midfielders Aleix Garcia and Yangel Herrera, center back David Lopez and forward Viktor Tsygankov.

Girona leads the league in scoring along with third-place Barcelona with 18 goals through seven matches. And they have spread the goals around to make them difficult to defend with 11 scorers. Dovbyk and Herrera lead the team with three goals each.

Michel, who likes his team to defend in its half and hit on the counterattack, praised his entire team, while asking them to “keep their feet on the ground,” after the win at Villarreal. He also anticipated a duel on Saturday between Savinho, Girona’s 19-year-old Brazilian winger, and Vinicius Junior.

“Since Vinicius, I have not seen a player with the one-on-one skills that Savinho has,” Michel told Cadena SER radio. “We know that we will have a hard time with Vinicius on Saturday, but we will enjoy a good battle between those two.”

Vinicius saw his first minutes after a month-long injury layoff on Wednesday when he played about a half hour in Madrid’s 2-0 win over Las Palmas.

The city of Girona has for years been a hotbed of Catalan nationalism, but the team’s rise has also put it at the center of Spanish sports. Besides the results, Michel, who is from Madrid, has also won over Girona’s fans by learning to speak Catalan, the local language spoken alongside Spanish.

But their coach wants his team to keep focused on their first goal, which is simply avoiding a relegation fight.

“The joy is for our fans and our city, but inside the team we have to understand that the job is not done,” Michel said.

Barcelona hosts Sevilla on Friday aiming to rebound from a 2-2 draw with Mallorca this week that cost it the lead.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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