Raised up by Girona, Dovbyk stands alone at the top to claim the Pichichi

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Girona;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Girona</a>’s <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Artem Dovbyk;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Artem Dovbyk</a> scored a hat-trick on the final day in a 7-0 win over <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Granada;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Granada</a> to reach 24 goals for the season.</span><span>Photograph: Felipe Mondino/IPA Sport/</span>

Sometimes the least important things matter most, small moments that make sense of it all. A last-minute penalty in a 7-0 win on the final day, scored against the worst team around – long since relegated, reduced to 10 men, with a reserve keeper in goal and coach that’s leaving – elevated Artem Dovbyk above everyone. The last shot of the final Friday of the season took the Girona striker to the top of the Pichichi charts. The first shot of the final Saturday – off target by his closest rival for the award Alexander Sørloth – kept him there for ever, legends made of him and those who carried him, countryman and team mate Viktor Tsygankov standing holding a lightsaber to the sky.

Dovbyk’s 77th shot of the season, more than anyone, was simple enough. Left footed from the spot, it sent Marc Martínez – the Granada goalkeeper playing his third top flight game aged 34 – the wrong way; it also took the Ukrainian to 24 goals, one above Villarreal striker Alexander Sørloth in the only thing still in play on the final weekend. The following day, as the final Saturday kicked off, Girona’s players met for lunch still nursing hangovers. They watched together as Sørloth took his last shot, pulling up injured to leave Dovbyk as top scorer, one teammate marking a historic season for all of them.

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Sørloth had lasted just 14 minutes. That shot, his first of the early afternoon game at Osasuna, was an opportunity to claim an award he had pursued like a T-1000. Sørloth had scored four in the previous game, nine in the last six, 15 in 12. But it hit the side-netting and he hit the floor, holding his hamstring. Forced to withdraw early, he headed straight down the tunnel and out of sight, applauded all the way, everyone feeling for him. “He’s sad: you get your first shot, right where you’re so accurate and you get injured, it’s a pity. He deserved the Pichichi,” said the Villarreal coach Marcelino García Toral. “When his shot went where it did, I thought something must have happened.”

What had happened was cruel, perhaps a portrait of the second half of Villarreal’s season too, the revival stopping just short of being complete. Instead, Dovbyk had done it; not exactly how he would have wanted, perhaps, but he had. Sørloth, scorer of a last-minute goal on the day his daughter was born, had been stopped on 23, one short of Dovbyk, left with a feeling of what could have been. Villarreal had seven penalties and Sørloth took none, while Dovbyk had scored five, then plus two the night before. Sørloth’s first shot at goal, his first shot at the Pichichi, ending not in the net but in pain, the race sadly halted in the home straight. It had been some race too.

The previous weekend Dovbyk had scored at Valencia to take him to 21 goals, but as he approached the touchline, taken off late, Míchel came across to break the news that 65km up the coast at Villarreal, Sørloth had just put four past Real Madrid to move on to 23 with a single game to go. Bellingham – on 19 goals – had sat on the bench laughing, gesturing that he might as well take off his boots and give up. Míchel was laughing a little too, he couldn’t help it, but Dovbyk managed only to mouth “four?!”, the look on his face saying what he could not. “Like he was starting to calculate,” as Míchel had put it.

Champions: Real Madrid
Champions League: Madrid, Barcelona, Girona, Atlético.
Europa League: Athletic, Real Sociedad
Conference League: Real Betis
Relegated: Granada, Almería, Cádiz.
Pichichi: Dovbyk (24)
Zamora: Unai Simón

“He was a bit down after that but we encouraged him, told him it was still possible,” said the Girona striker, Cristhian Stuani, of Dovbyk. As for defender Eric García, he put it a little differently: “All week we’ve been winding him up because Sørloth overtook him,” he joked. There was one last chance, though. The table read Sørloth 23, Dovbyk 21, each with a game left, but Villarreal’s was at Osasuna while Girona’s was at home against Granada, who had lost four in a row, were already relegated, entirely sunk. Besides, his teammates said, we’ll do everything to help you. If he can score four, why can’t you? If there has to be a chase, let’s chase.

And so there was, one so extreme Girona ended up saying sorry. They enjoyed this a little too much, not stopping even though Granada were already dead. For much of the night Dovbyk didn’t seem to be enjoying it much at all, he had an anxiousness about him. Girona were 1-0 up after 30 minutes, but he didn’t score that. They were 2-0 up after 33, and he didn’t score that either. But on 44 minutes, Dovbyk struck. Portu was brought down for a penalty, and the Ukrainian put it away. After every goal, he ran to the net and got the ball – one Granada player had a go at him for it – but still it said: Sørloth 23, Dovbyk 22. And when Dovbyk scored again on 49 minutes, it was ruled out.

Míchel had said that Girona could not allow one player to condition everything: penalties and free kicks, sure, but not the rest. Eventually though, that was exactly what they did. Sávio and Yan Couto came on after 50 minutes. Six minutes later, so did Stuani. Natural wingers to put the ball in, another reference point to take defenders away. “You could see we wanted to help him,” Yangel Herrera said. On 54 minutes, Girona scored again, to make it 4-0, but the scorer still wasn’t Dovbyk. On 59, Dovbyk had a great chance but the ball slipped fractionally wide. On 63, he hit the post. On 74, another effort went just past it.

On 75 minutes, Dovbyk did score, a neat finish from Stuani’s pass. Five-nil. 23-23. Three minutes later, he nodded down an assist for Stuani. 6-0. And the very next minute, his shot flashed passed the post, everyone in the stands chanting his name, everyone on the pitch chasing for him. Time, though, waits for no man: Granada had been down to 10 men since the 62nd minute, Facundo Pellistri harshly sent off, but Dovbyk was still only level with Sørloth and the Norwegian would have 90 minutes to add to that the next day, while Dovbyk hardly had any. Eighty-six minutes passed, 87, 88, 89.

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And then it happened: another run from Sávio, another challenge – a little light, like the first, a little silly too – and another penalty. With the clock on 89min 29sec, Dovbyk beat Martinez. Seven-nil, 24-23. It wasn’t the four Sørloth had got but it was enough. It was also a battering, a humiliation for a team already in pieces, the Granada manager José Ramón Sandoval looking broken and desperate just to get out of there. So little mercy was shown that the first thing Míchel did afterwards was apologise.

“I put myself in Sandoval’s skin and it doesn’t leave a nice taste,” he said. “I know what it’s like. I’ve been relegated. But our responsibility was to help Dovbyk and give our fans a wonderful final night. We have total respect: we wanted to show that by competing. And helping Dovbyk really mattered to us. You’re 4-0 up, you rush to get the ball, and it can look [disrespectful], but that’s not the case. I said ‘I’m sorry’ to Sandoval. I just hope they understand that we still had something to play for, an objective: not a collective one, but one that was important to us.”

Girona 7–0 Granada
Osasuna 1–1 Villarreal
Real Sociedad 0–2 Atlético
Almería 6–1 Cádiz
Rayo Vallecano 0–1 Athletic Bilbao
Real Madrid 0–0 Real Betis
Getafe 1-2 Mallorca
Celta Vigo 2-2 Valencia
Las Palmas 1-1 Alavés
Sevilla 1-2 Barcelona

It was collective because football is. And in the absence of any other, the Pichichi became a ‘trophy’ for this team that had done so much to make this season what it was, a reward and a permanent reminder of what may be a one-off, a group that will probably be broken up, the inevitable destruction of a disrupter. As Girona celebrated at the end, with a band on the pitch, with the place packed, nostalgia hung heavy. “It’s been special. It’s a shame it has to end: if only it could go on another 50 weeks,” Portu said, voice cracking. “Having to put the clock back to zero tomorrow is a pity,” Míchel said. “There are people who won’t be here next year, who we may go a long time without seeing again.”

Dovbyk, for a start. Signed for €7.75m (for 70%), a man who played in Moldova, Denmark and Ukraine, bigger clubs will surely come for him now. He is the top scorer, after all. But while the Pichichi is his, it is all of theirs, the implausible title contenders who scored 85 goals. It belongs to Dovbyk and to Portu, brought down for the first penalty. To Savinho who was fouled for the second. To the men who assisted him this season: Viktor Tsygankov (three), Sávio (two), Daley Blind, Couto (four), Portu (two), Miguel Gutiérrez, Iván Martín (two). And, against Granada, to Stuani: their best ever player – “Vintage Girona”, the coach called him – and a link to their second-division past, the Uruguayan created Dovbyk’s second goal (and also scored his 100th for the club). This was for all of them. “Including those who don’t get seen,” as Portu put it.

After everything they had done, Girona felt it was right it to end this way, something tangible for them to take. They had chased the Pichichi for him and for a reason. “And on top of it all, Artem has scored three: that rounds it off,” García said, as the party started on Friday night. “We deserve this,” Stuani insisted. “It’s a very important personal achievement but it’s important for the team, too, to have the Pichichi amongst us. It ended perfectly.”

It hadn’t ended just yet but it would, a team meal that started at 2pm on Saturday, exactly as Villarreal kicked off at Osasuna, becoming the definitive celebration. Fourteen minutes were all it took, the first course not even there yet when Sørloth was forced to stop. Dovbyk had done it. In the end, a 90th-minute penalty, the seventh goal of a game that didn’t matter, had taken him there, history written. Sometimes what’s supposedly insignificant means the most, and that’s football.







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