“I was sitting on the bench thinking: ‘Bloody hell, I’m enjoying this,’” Munir El Haddadi said, and it would only get better. He had been inside the bus as it moved slowly through the smoke on the short trip to the Sánchez Pizjuán stadium; now he was alongside the pitch, unable to sit still as his Sevilla teammates made their way through Real Betis quite a lot quicker. With the noise rising round them this was a moment to be part of and, sooner than expected, he was sprinting off in the sunshine, laughing as the substitutes he had just left behind ran towards him.
Munir had been on the pitch for only 10 minutes, a first-half substitute replacing Papu Gómez after half an hour. Now the Moroccan had put Sevilla 2-0 up and the place went wild. Better still, with Betis not scoring until Sergio Canales’s superb free-kick in the 94th minute, he had put them on course for a 2-1 victory they would celebrate as if it was something much, much more than a match. Not least because it was.
The Seville derby is always special, this time maybe even more so, plenty of reasons why their manager slipped to his knees at the final whistle, why the players threw their shirts into the crowd and set off on a lap of honour, why their sporting director was almost in tears. It had been so loud, intense and competitive, so much fun, the anthem sung at the start and the end, silence never falling, that Ivan Rakitic said: “Experiencing this, seeing the supporters, anyone who wasn’t a Sevilla fan became one.” Their league results under Julen Lopetegui – no defeats in six – might have suggested the same, but Betis would have a word or 32 to say about that, which is the way it should be.
Second against third, Sevilla and Betis hadn’t come into any of their 137 meetings better placed. Sevilla arrived unbeaten in 11 league games, while Betis had been more fun to watch than anyone in 2022, scoring four goals four times in five weeks. Both clubs are still in the Europa League, with the final at the Pizjuán, and there’s still a chance they could both win something in the same season for the first time since 1935, when Betis took the title and Sevilla the cup. This time, Betis start their Copa del Rey semi-final second leg on Thursday 2-1 up against Rayo Vallecano, while Sevilla are the only likely challengers in the league to Real Madrid.
In recent weeks Sevilla had looked a little less like one, doubts creeping in, the hint of an opportunity lost. Rakitic could have put Sevilla just one point behind Real with a last-minute penalty at Osasuna but his shot was saved. Although they are unbeaten since visiting the Bernabéu in November, Sevilla had drawn four of five and came into the derby nine points behind after Real had won at Rayo on Saturday night, the stakes high. Some suggested something was missing, that they didn’t go for teams enough, preferring to wait for their moment rather than seek it. There was a lingering suspicion they just couldn’t take that final step, pressure building on Lopetegui as if this is a team that should win the league. “There’s this odd atmosphere around us; we’re second and it’s as if it’s not enough,” Rakitic said.
Lose against Betis, drop points, and most thought that would be it, all over. Betis had already knocked them out of the Copa – the game abandoned and completed behind closed doors the next day after a plastic flagpole was thrown which hit the Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordán – now they could knock them out of the league, too. Not only that: win and they would be just two points behind Sevilla, ready to take second off them.
Injuries were a big part of Sevilla’s problems, the absentees almost in double figures for months now, a minor miracle they were still standing at all. If they didn’t always go full throttle, some of that was about fatigue. Erik Lamela and Suso have started just 11 games between them. Youssef En-Nesyri has started eight. On Sunday Jesús Navas started his first since October. Jules Koundé was out. Even the new signing Anthony Martial was absent, as if the bad luck was contagious. Diego Carlos lasted until half-time. “He shouldn’t even have warmed up but we took a risk; I take my hat off to him,” said Monchi, the sporting director.
Munir came on to experience on the pitch what he had enjoyed from off it. By the half-hour, Sevilla led and were flying. If there had been doubts before, there were none now. Roared on by the crowd is a cliche but it is true. Sometimes going for it isn’t a choice; knowing that doing so for 90 minutes is impossible, you can choose to hit this moment or that one, or it can just happen. “This is my sixth derby, the first I’ve experienced here with fans,” Lopetegui said. “The context is big. Making a calculation is difficult. Sometimes whether you get there or you don’t, you press [or not], comes from the fans: that’s the energy they give you.”
Sevilla thundered into the match. There were two penalty shouts in two minutes, the scene set; three shots within seven; a fourth in the next minute, corners racked up fast, the first confrontation not far behind, players piling in. Diego Carlos and Borja Iglesias crashed into each other like bumper cars, the Sevilla defender winning that battle and every other battle too. It was 7-0 in shots on the half-hour, the volume ever louder. Marcos Acuña launched into Nabil Fekir – “I lost my head,” he said – and Sevilla just kept coming. “I wasn’t surprised by Sevilla, I was surprised by Betis,” Manuel Pellegrini said. “I don’t know why we were like that. It hurts. We weren’t ourselves,” Canales, the Betis captain, said. Sevilla were, only stuck on fast forward.
It took only 15 minutes for them to lead. An outrageous chip-and-chase and then pass from Tecatito sent En-Nesyri through and he was taken out by Claudio Bravo. For a brief moment, everyone took the breath they needed and Rakitic did what his wife and kids had told him to do when he left the house that morning: scored, the release saying it all. This was fun, exhilarating enough just to watch, and when Munir joined in the second came. It might not have been what he was looking for but Yassine Bono’s goal-kick went right through – too fast for Betis and the television cameras too, who missed his assist – and Munir was on to it, his left-foot shot sliding past Bravo’s hands. The Pizjuán erupted, Munir slapped his chest and ran, the bench vacating as they went after him.
It was done. Well, not done exactly, but ultimately it was enough. “It was two games,” Pellegrini said afterwards and if Betis took the second 1-0 it wasn’t enough. Joaquín came on for Fekir to face Navas in a derby for probably the last time, 17 years after the first. Except that on this evidence Joaquín can go beyond 40, changing Betis who made chances – for Álex Moreno, Marc Bartra and Cristian Tello. The first-half storm had been enough and Lopetegui said Sevilla had “administered the pain and the drop in energy well”. Betis didn’t find a way through until virtually the last kick, the noise deafening at the end. “I hadn’t played a derby with fans here and it’s twice as good,” Acuña said.
When the whistle went, Lopetegui repeatedly punched the air, roaring: “Come on!” He leapt into Monchi’s arms and they held each other tight. When he joined the players celebrating at the north end, the fans chanted: “Julen, Julen, Julen Lopetegui.” It was the first time he had been embraced quite like this and he held his heart and blew them kisses. Sitting there looking exhausted afterwards, throat sore, eyes too, however much it had meant, and it had meant a lot, he said this wasn’t about him; it was about the players. And, above all, the people.
“There may be better teams than this, but there is no group like this,” Rakitic said. Monchi said: “The demands on this team are great because it has become a ‘big’ team. Sometimes it can seem like what we do isn’t enough. Today was important and it’s lovely to be able to celebrate it with our people. In the end, it’s football and those of us who work in football have one main obligation: to make people happy. For these fans to go home happy is even more valuable to me than the three points.”
If they were going home, that is. “It’s going to be a long night,” Munir said with a smile.