Lucas Ocampos was looking the other way when Sevilla scored the penalty that virtually secured their return to the Champions Leagueon Sunday evening – and he was the one taking it. The man who had racked up 13 goals and one last-minute save, the forward who had scored one and stopped another just six days earlier – pulling on the goalie top and pulling off a 101st-minute rescue mission – was on the spot again. Bouncing the ball and beaming, if the responsibility was his the appearance belonged to a man without a care in the world. What happened next did, too.
There were a few minutes left until half-time against Mallorca on Sunday when for the fifth time in four games in a single day – twice in Cornellá, twice at Butarque, now once at the Sánchez Pizjuán – someone sitting in a room a long way away had seen a handball. For the 16th time this season, more than any other team ever, Mallorca were facing a penalty. As Ocampos stood waiting to take it, the goalkeeper, Manolo Reina, came up for a chat, laughing and trying to put him off. Sergio Reguilón planted a kiss on his cheek. Éver Banega had a word. And then there was quiet, just the sound of Reina 12 yards away, shouting “Lucas! Lucas!”
Ocampos ran up and when he reached the ball, turned his head and looked away. His stare fixed on the empty seats off to his right, the ball bent into the corner to his left, a touch of Magic Johnson or Michael Laudrup to it, a hint of Ronaldinho from the man who used to get up early to watch Cristiano Ronaldo. A no-look penalty that put Sevilla on course for the Champions League and Mallorca on course for the second division. A late second from Youssef En-Nesyri wrapped it up at 2-0, leaving Sevilla six points clear in fourth. “It’s not decisive, but it’s the nearest thing there is,” Diario de Sevilla said. “Touching the Champions League,” ran the headline in El País.
“We still need a point,” Sevilla’s manager, Julen Lopetegui, insisted afterwards, but it is just one. A draw at Real Sociedad on Thursday or at home against Valencia next Sunday will be enough. So would Villarreal dropping a single point in any of their final three games, starting on Monday at hometo Real Sociedad. Sevilla, who were playing their first weekend game since the return to action, are unbeaten since March and have won four in a row. There’s a solidity about them – “granite”, Marca called them – and there is, the midfielder Fernando admitted, “only a very small way to go”.
As he celebrated, Ocampos drew a heart with his hands. There was no one in the stands where he stood; had there been, they would have sent one right back at him. Sevilla’s sporting director, Monchi, says he first fell in love with Ocampos during a Milan-Roma match in 2017. Ocampos was on loan at Milan; Monchi had just arrived at Roma. He couldn’t afford to sign the Argentinian then but two years later, back at Sevilla, he did. At €15m, he has probably been the signing of the season.
At first, Ocampos admits, he found it hard to adapt: it was faster than anything he had experienced before. And nor, as it turned out, has he ended up playing where he thought he would – moving from left to right. But he has been superb, on Sunday offering up a portrait of himself. Aggressive, direct, relentless – he is the one drawing saves, carrying attacks, bombing into the box, scoring goals. Against Eibar last Monday he scored the only goal – then, called upon as an emergency goalkeeper, he also saved a shot from the Eibar keeper Marko Dmitrovic, up for a corner in the last minute.
“There was a goal, a save, a win, and suffering,” he said afterwards, the smile bigger than the face on which it sat. Grappling with the gloves, heart racing, the referee telling him to calm down and take his time, Ocampos had been nervous then, he admitted. This time he wasn’t. Once his penalty was in, Sevilla were on their way. Alongside Jesús Navas, Ocampos’s right wing has made more chances than any other wing in Spain, and he has more than twice as many goals as any of his teammates.
Not that he is alone. Sevilla have struggled in the striking positions this season, new signings leaving again having been unable to make a mark. Munas Dabbur came for €15m and left six months later, having played just twice in the league. Javier Hernández joined for €8m and departed having played nine league games, scoring only once. Luuk de Jong cost €12m and is the team’s second highest scorer on six; cursed with bad luck, it can seem like he is the best scorer of nearly goals in Spain.
Ocampos has stepped into that void and, besides, elsewhere on the pitch it has worked, the structure suiting him even if it doesn’t always help the strikers. If he is not the signing of the season, that might be because one of his teammates is. Jules Koundé, €20m from Bordeaux, say. Or Fernando, the €4m signing from Galatasaray. Maybe Diego Carlos, who came from Nantes for €10m. In short Monchi, who built Sevilla over 17 years, departed leaving them staring into the void, and then came back after less than two years, and has only gone and done it again.
Sevilla are back being the club that make a virtue of selling their best players and starting again, somehow finding footballers in the strangest places.
Monchi likes to tell the story of how Diego Maradona came into training one morning and commented on how smart Monchi’s watch was. “Oh, that? That’s a fake,” he replied. The next day, Maradona turned up and gave him a real Rolex, saying that no friend of his was going to wear a fake. And yet making a success of cheap alternatives, to the extent where it is hard to tell the difference, is pretty much what he does.
In the summer Sevilla sold Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben Yedder; they scored 53 goals between them last season, a huge hole to fill. They also allowed Sevilla to begin again. Fifteen players departed, 13 arrived. Suso and En-Nesyri arrived six months later. They spent €149m, according to Marca; they raised €101m of that in sales.
Banega has been superb of late, all the more so after he announced his departure for Saudi Arabia at the end of the season – and what a pity that is – as has Navas, still faster than anyone else all these years later. Of the 16 players that played on Sunday, 13 are in their first season at Sevilla. None of the signings came as a guarantee either. Ocampos scored four last season.
Nantes, Galatasaray, Bordeaux and Eibar are not really the places you get superstars from. Even for Monchi, this was a step again: this wasn’t one or two risks, a couple of unknowns, it was an entire team of them. Making that work is not easy.
Atlético Madrid 1-0 Real Betis, Espanyol 0-2 Eibar, Leganés 1-0 Valencia, Levante 1-2 Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna 2-1 Celta Vigo, Real Valladolid 0-1 Barcelona, Sevilla 2-0 Mallorca
Alavés v Getafe, Granada v Real Madrid, Villarreal v Read Sociedad
Which is where Lopetegui comes in, a new manager for a whole new team, trying to build something from scratch; like a contestant on The Krypton Factor, he had countless pieces to fix together and not much time to do it in. The son of a champion stone lifter from the Basque country, there were doubts too, at least to begin with.
Burned and deeply hurt by the experience of Spain and Madrid, the truth is there wasn’t much initial enthusiasm, still less warmth, for a man who Monchi said “needs to triumph”. But, driven perhaps by that sense of redemption, mission, need, he has done just that.
The early signs were good. Sevilla’s meeting with Real Sociedad might even have been the game of the season, they briefly went top and they beat Betis, which is as big as it gets, but they lost to Madrid and Barcelona and doubts surfaced again. Now, though, unbeaten in 13 league games, including every game since the restart which began with another derby victory, their target is close now.
When the penalty went in, there was no smile, no big celebration, no embrace and certainly no wild celebrating, but Sevilla’s manager knew how big this was. As it all unfolded, he sat silently in the shadows on the bench, hands over his eyes, hoping. Lopetegui did not want to look. Nor, it turned out, did Ocampos.