Real Betis started the season really well. Newly promoted, they won their opening four games to top the Spanish league for the first time in ten years. It was the club’s joint best ever start to a Primera División season. For a while they had the only 100 per cent record in the bigger European leagues. There was even acclaim for a Barcelona-style passing game, with coach Pepe Mel praised for sending out an attacking 4-3-3 line-up and urging his men forward.
That was then though. After the thrilling 4-3 win at home to Real Zaragoza on September 22nd, they lost their next five matches. A home draw with Málaga was then followed by last Saturday’s narrow defeat at Villarreal. Taking just one point from 24 has seen Betis drop from top to thirteenth, just four points off the relegation zone.
It’s not hard to see where things have gone wrong for Mel’s side. After scoring nine goals in their first four games, they’ve only managed one in the eight since. And that was in a 1-4 defeat to Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. The Villarreal game saw the team outlast a a forty year club record and move to 521 minutes without troubling the scorers.
This shouldn’t really have happened, considering the attacking options in the squad. Nippy Rubén Castro shot them to the Segunda title last year with 27 league goals. Bustling Jorge Molina got 18. These were joined last summer by promising loan signings in Manchester City’s Roque Santa Cruz and Villarreal’s attacking midfield duo Javi Matilla and Jefferson Montero. There is also emerging teenage winger Álvaro Vadillo and schemer Alejandro Pozuelo, who’ve both already been linked with moves to Manchester United and Barcelona. Beñat Etxeberria can do a more than decent job in the ‘Xavi’ role. With this much creative talent available, one goal in eight games, is pretty poor really.
Mel reckons Betis have been frightfully unlucky and are not actually playing that badly. He’s not all wrong. The verdiblancos hit the crossbar three times during the 1-0 loss at Racing Santander. Many of their goals against, for example both in the 2-0 home loss to Rayo Vallecano, have been due to silly individual errors. They’ve had a horrible run of injuries, with Castro, Molina, Montero, Vadillo, key midfielder Salva Sevilla and (shock horror) Santa Cruz all missing games. On Saturday Betis had 68 per cent possession and 18 shots on goal, but were beaten by a superb chipped goal on the break by Borja Valero. More realistic observers might say that Betis are more a mini-Arsenal (without a fit and firing Robin van Persie) than a mini-Barca. For all the pretty triangles constructed by their talented ball-players, Mel’s men made few clear chances at Villarreal, and only four of those 18 shots even hit the target.
Such swings and roundabouts are pretty typical Betis. The super start to the season was accompanied by a feeling that the club finally had its house in order off the field. A mix of fans protests and a friendly investigating judge Mercedes Alaya had eventually ousted club owner and Monty Burns-alike Manuel Ruiz de Lopera and his oily Smithers Luis Oliver. The new regime, including legendary Spain and Betis left-back Rafael Gordillo and smiling club president Miguel Guillén, seemed to be managing the club’s €85m debt as well as possible, and things were looking up.
Recent weeks have thrown some doubt on that happy story too though. Control of the club remains very much up in the air, with Alaya still three or four months from presenting her case to the Andalucian parliament, which will then need more time to come to a final decision. Both Lopera and Oliver continue to loudly argue that they remain the club’s rightful legal owners, unsurprisingly as they could face jail time should things not go their way. Gordillo and Guillén appear confident that the supporters groups they represent will win out, but nobody really knows yet.
Things are also not as certain as they seemed in the Betis manager’s office. The horrible run of results has provoked understandable unrest among Andalucia’s biggest fanbase Guillén has so far backed the coach who oversaw last year’s successful promotion campaign, but another defeat this weekend could be one too many for Mel.
Sunday’s winnable home game against even worse off Real Sociedad therefore seems well timed. The midfield ‘trivote magico’ (Iriney-Beñat-Sevilla), which started all four early victories, should return, with perhaps Montero, Castro and Pozuelo up front. It’s an attacking looking line-up and should be enough to see off the Basques, who are themselves seven games without a win. That will need Betis to actually score a goal though.
Mel, to his credit, seems likely to stick to his footballing guns. “Playing to win is a risk,” he said earlier this month. “Sometimes it goes badly for you, but normally you get your reward in the end. We hope that things go well for us and that we will be able to smile again.”
The 40,000 green and white clad fans expected at the Benito Villamarín at Sunday lunchtime hope so too.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.