Could Valencia and Sevilla really be relegated from LaLiga?
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Could Valencia and Sevilla really be relegated from LaLiga?

For traditionalists, romantics, and fans of two of Spain's most successful clubs, LaLiga's table makes absolutely apocalyptic reading right now. Scan all the way down to the relegation zone and you'll see Valencia second from bottom, with Sevilla one bad weekend away from joining them in the three-team basement.

Almost all season, while Sevilla have performed like self-indulgent dilettantes, there have been questions about whether they really have the stomach for a relegation dogfight. But for many months, Valencia weren't really part of that doomsday equation. Now they unquestionably are.

It sound sacrilegious to even mention it, but... what if both were relegated? It would be horrifying for them and their fans, for employment in their cities and the clubs' respective financial situations; it would also be devastating for how attractive LaLiga remains around the world while it fights, tooth and nail, to compete for attention, sponsorship and, let's face it, affection against England's Premier League.

These two clubs aren't merely historical greats -- at least that's not the best, or only, way to define their general importance to Spanish football. Between them over the past 20 years, Valencia and Sevilla have won 16 major trophies -- defeating Liverpool, Marseille, Inter Milan, Porto, Barcelona and Real Madrid while doing so -- a total that's split nicely between domestic silverware and defeating the best that Europe has to offer before winning one of UEFA's flagship competitions.

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When the Spain men's national team won that unparalleled triptych of back-to-back trophies -- Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 -- you'll see Sevilla and Valencia mentioned 13 times across the three squad lists. The club in the hot heart of Andalucia and the club perched elegantly on Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast provided the foot-soldiers who helped march La Roja to world dominance.

Los Che and Los Rojiblancos have also been, across the years of their pomp, wonderful for the neutral in that they would regularly harass, bother and then defeat the Ancien Regime of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Sevilla and Valencia were the upsetters. Now they're merely upset... and upsetting to watch.

Valencia, for the moment, are a case apart. They've sacked Gennaro Gattuso as manager and installed Ruben Baraja, with fellow club legend Carlos Marchena as an assistant.

Los Che were ferocious in their penultimate fixture, defeating Real Sociedad in a display of raw sporting aggression in which their team, average age of 23, played like you'd expect a group of Navy Seals to perform if they were given orders to "storm LaLiga and rescue Valencia at any cost." That esprit de corps and "who dares wins" mentality didn't pass muster at Camp Nou this weekend when, once they were facing a stumbling, fragile 10-man Barcelona, Valencia failed to get a shot on target.

Despite that 1-0 defeat, Los Che are in the process of restoring their chutzpah, finding out whether or not Baraja, their superb former midfielder who scored six goals in Valencia's last eight matches when Rafa Benitez's side surged to become Spanish champions in 2002, is the right guy.

Sevilla, on the other hand, look like they need emergency surgery. Whatever criteria they apply, whatever decision they eventually reach there's no doubt that they need to be critically analysing whether Jorge Sampaoli, is the right man to try and keep them out of the second division. He's pugnacious, he's had success (although long ago and far away), but the 62-year-old Argentine is approaching his 20th different managerial position across a peripatetic career while portraying a man who's doing as much damage as good at Sevilla right now.

Yes, Sevilla's temporary, sputtering resurrection over the last couple of months (narrow wins over fellow relegation candidates like Elche, Cadiz and Getafe) plus a nip-and-tuck 3-2 defeat of PSV Eindhoven in the Europa League, came on the Chilean's watch. But there has been crystal clear evidence that Los Rojiblancos' improvement owes much more to: senior, high-quality Players freeing themselves from injury; the addition of Loic Bade, Lucas Ocampos, Bryan Gil and Pape Gueye in the January transfer market (nothing to do with Sampaoli) and the return to scoring of the enigmatic Youssef En-Nesyri.

Now to the evidence against.

Much of Sevilla's defeat at Barcelona in early February was Sampaoli's fault. A tactical dunce's class. He designed a perfectly adequate defensive system and, for much of the first half, made things awkward for LaLiga's leaders. Then, bewilderingly, he took off En Nesyri, liberated Barcelona from the threat of the Moroccan's power and pace, reduced Sevilla's capacity to score and, above all, played Ivan Rakitic as a "false" No. 9.

The Croatia international, who turns 35 next week, is many things, but fast in the sprint or likely to author a high-speed counter attack goal, he's not. Barcelona reacted accordingly, pushed extra men forward in the knowledge that there was zero chance of being caught on the break and duly won 3-0 from the 0-0 stalemate at half-time. It's not easy being a coach in a sinking team; it's much easier to be a Monday morning quarterback, but that, by any definition, was atrocious thinking.

Away to Rayo Vallecano two games later, Sampaoli watched his team dominate the first half, take the lead and then he decided to repeat the folly. He removed centre-forward Rafa Mir at half-time and didn't put on another striker until 14 minutes from time by which point Rayo had their tails up, had equalised and were playing like buccaneers with the wind in their sails.

Now come the two even more damning pieces of evidence for those who think Sevilla's coach is to blame for contributing to their currently parlous state. Both featuring the excellent Marcos Acuna.

In what was a marvellous match for the neutrals, brimful of excellence, skill and thrills, Osasuna went to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium last week and won 3-2. It was a beautiful match in many aspects, during which En Nesyri scored the best goal of Sevilla's entire season to equalise at 2-2 with 12 minutes left. En Nesyri's World Cup teammate Abde (on loan from Barcelona) immediately restored Osasuna's lead with an equally spiffing goal and chaos ensued.

Sevilla threw the kitchen sink at the visitors. Fernando, already subbed off, lost his temper so badly that he was red-carded on the bench, the ferocious crowd bayed at the moon in abject fury and misery.

What not everyone noticed, amidst the bedlam, is that right after Abde's goal Sampaoli had drawn out an A4 page of instructions, which Nemanja Gudelj was ordered to hand to midfielder Oliver Torres.

Down a goal with five minutes left, it was like handing over a doctoral thesis instead of two pithy, well-designed sentences.

On seeing this, Acuna (a 2022 World Cup winner with Argentina and Sevilla's best player all season) ran up and furiously snatched the coach's instructions out of Torres' hands before the Spaniard could read them, crumpled the paper up and threw it to the ground.

An action which told two stories: "The game's about to re-commence and we need to equalise.... START CONCENTRATING!' And: '... never mind that total nonsense from the coach.. WHAT DOES HE KNOW?"

It was brutal. Total disregard for Sampaoli's authority and a demonstration of zero respect.

So, after another tactical botch-up when Sevilla lost by an historic margin of 6-1 at Atletico Madrid on Saturday night, Acuna duly said: "The sensations are terrible. If we've had six goals put past us then that means we've played really badly. It's not only the coach's fault but he's given us concepts to use on the pitch which we've not understood."

A reigning world champion, and the club's best player this season stating, with unmistakable clarity that the coach isn't either convincing or even helping his struggling, currently relegation-bound, Players.

It's too simple, in a written column to boldly state "SAMPAOLI OUT" and leave it at that.

Sacking the Chilean looks like an inevitable conclusion but there are consequences to be considered first.

Sampaoli's contract runs out at the end of this season and removing him now would cost a painful seven-figure sum. Meaning that the key question is: Do Sevilla have a clear coaching option who make it worthwhile to buy out Sampaoli because the new man (Joaquin Caparros? Jose Bordalas? Marcelino?) would be guaranteed to keep Sevilla from getting relegated?

This is a club which has made eight managerial appointments since winning their last trophy in 2016, spending millions on sackings as a result. This is also a club embroiled in a damaging internecine fight for overall control between current president Jose Castro Carmona and his rival and predecessor Jose Maria del Nido, who was released from prison in 2017 after being convicted on embezzlement charges in 2011.

Is there anyone -- including the badly besmirched director of football Monchi -- in a position to weigh up the pros and cons of sacking Sampaoli? And to make a brilliant decision about what to do next?

You would honestly be fearful about the answer to that question.

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