Will they? Won't they?

Real Madrid's own stuttering form over the past few weeks has at least helped to retain a hint of unpredictability at LaLiga's summit, but it's difficult to not think Sevilla keep blowing their opportunities.

It's not likely to get any easier on Sunday, either. They headed into this matchday six points behind Madrid, which in itself certainly isn't insurmountable.

But then Madrid beat Rayo Vallecano, and Sevilla's visitors are local rivals Real Betis, who are absolutely flying and chasing a victory that would lift them to within just two points of their neighbours.

Prior to Sevilla's slender – and ultimately irrelevant – 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday in the Europa League, the only side to have beaten them this year is Betis, who were 2-1 victors in the Copa del Rey in mid-January.

Since then injuries have played a significant role for Sevilla and they could conceivably be without Gonzalo Montiel, Diego Carlos, Jules Kounde, Lucas Ocampos, Erik Lamela, Suso, Anthony Martial and Karim Rekik on Sunday.

Several of those have been absent for other games in the last few weeks, and in the cases of Lamela and Suso, for much of the season. As such, since that defeat to Betis, Sevilla have won only two of seven games in all competitions.

But to many, a potential obstacle for Sevilla in their quest for an unlikely title triumph had long been identifiable, and it will only be made even more obvious against Betis.

Replacing the irreplaceable?

In 2020, Sevilla saw Ever Banega bring his second spell at the club to an end. Across his total six years at the club, either side of a single season with Inter, the Argentinian playmaker had been a fundamental part of the team.

A feisty competitor, excellent dribbler and possessor of wonderful vision and passing abilities, Banega's presence meant Sevilla always had a viable creative option in the middle of the pitch, even if using the flanks was a key concept for both Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui.

Since Banega departed for Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab, Sevilla simply haven't replaced him adequately. Ivan Rakitic, while still capable, isn't the same kind of player; Papu Gomez hasn't had consistency in any one position; and Oliver Torres has been unable to step into his former team-mate's shoes.

 

That creative role in midfield would be considered by most Sevilla fans as the final piece of the puzzle. The other two central positions are filled ably by Joan Jordan, an effective facilitator, and Fernando, who sits deeper to sweep up and help out with Diego Carlos and Kounde, something he's done to great success since joining.

But from a creative standpoint, Sevilla need only glance across town to see what they are missing in that area of the pitch.

Now, of course, the make-up of a midfield can have a major impact on other parts of the team, so were Sevilla to have a more penetrative central trio, there's every reason to suggest they'd not be as solid at the back.

But with Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir strutting their stuff for Betis, it's difficult to not at least wonder where Sevilla might be with a more positive outlook in midfield.

Sevilla's glaring weakness is Betis' biggest weapon

It cannot be overstated just how good a job Manuel Pellegrini is doing at Betis. Since the end of 2019-20, they have paid a transfer fee for just one player at €3.8million – in the same period, they've lost roughly €60m of talent, yet here they are, looking certainties for a Champions League spot.

Undoubtedly essential to Betis are Canales and Fekir, both of whom were exceptional and scored in the January Copa defeat of Sevilla.

Their influence makes Betis a real danger through the middle of the pitch, an area they are heavily reliant on.

We managed to isolate their key passes that have been played from the central column of the attacking third, and the outcome is impressive.

 

Betis are hugely active in this area, with as many as 36.7 per cent of their key passes being made from the zone in question. Only Real Mallorca (40.2 per cent) are busier here than Betis.

Sevilla, on the other hand, create just 25.2 per cent of their chances from the middle third, which is the lowest proportion of all 20 teams in LaLiga.

In fact, no Sevilla player has managed more than seven key passes in this section of the pitch – four Betis players have more than 10, with Fekir (14), Canales (21) and holding midfielder William Carvalho (12) accounting for 47 between them. That's only 11 fewer than Sevilla's entire squad.

 

Of course, a key element of Sevilla's setup is that they attack from the flanks, but it should be pointed out that Betis' proportion of touches out wide in the attacking half is only 2.2 per cent less, so they cannot be accused of neglecting the wings.

The difference is Sevilla are massively (too?) reliant on attacking from wide positions because they don't possess players with the kind of incisiveness that Betis do in midfield, both in terms of passing and ability on the ball.

 

It all comes back to an inability to replace Banega.

Failure to win at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Sunday will surely end Sevilla's title hopes as they would be left nine points adrift of Madrid.

While injuries have many fans pessimistic anyway, few would be surprised if it's in midfield where Sevilla's dreams are crushed.

Nabil Fekir has signed a new deal with Real Betis, keeping him in Andalusia until 2026.

The France international has extended his stay with Los Verdiblancos, whom he joined from Lyon in July 2019.

During his two and a half years at the club, Fekir has been hugely influential in Betis' rise up the table, helping them climb to third in LaLiga this season under Manuel Pellegrini after a sixth-place finish last term.

The 28-year-old has scored 16 league goals since arriving – a tally only bettered during that time by Borja Iglesias (17) for Betis – while Sergio Canales (14) is the only player to register more than his 12 assists.

 

Fekir has also attempted the most dribbles for Betis with 353 – more than double his nearest challenger, Alex Moreno (173) – with Lionel Messi, Lucas Ocampos and Vinicius Junior the only players to better that in LaLiga since the start of the 2019-20 season.

Meanwhile, Messi (341) is the only player to have completed more dribbles than Fekir (223) in the Spanish top-flight during that time.

Achraf Hakimi is a player in demand following his first season with Inter.

Hakimi helped Inter to Serie A glory for the first time in 10 years, but his future could be away from San Siro.

Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly determined to beat Chelsea and Bayern Munich to the full-back.

 

TOP STORY – PSG CHASING HAKIMI

Paris Saint-Germain remain interested in signing Inter star Achraf Hakimi, according to Gianluca Di Marzio.

PSG had a €60million (£51m) bid turned down by Serie A champions Inter, who are facing financial problems due to the coronavirus pandemic amid speculation over stars Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez, Alessandro Bastoni and Hakimi.

Ligue 1 giants PSG are still keen on Hakimi as Champions League winners Chelsea hold talks with the Morocco international's agent, while Bayern Munich have also been linked.

 

ROUND-UP

Bernardo Silva wants to leave Premier League champions Manchester City, reports Duncan Castles. The Portugal international has already been linked with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona after finding himself out of favour under Pep Guardiola.

- Fabrizio Romano claims Gianluigi Buffon is close to re-joining Parma. Buffon will leave Juventus in the off-season and the Italy great is reportedly on track to return to Parma, where the 43-year-old emerged from the youth team in 1995 before eventually moving to Turin in 2001. Parma were relegated from Serie A in 2020-21.

Arsenal have turned their attention to Real Betis attacker Nabil Fekir but Diario AS says the Gunners and LaLiga side remain apart in his transfer valuation.

- Calciomercato claims there are still concerns over Paulo Dybala's future at Juventus. Dybala is out of contract in 2022 and no closer to renewing after struggling for game time. The possible departure of Cristiano Ronaldo – who has been linked with PSG and Manchester United – could solidify Dybala's position in Turin.

Leicester City are the latest team to join the race for Salzburg's Patson Daka, according to the Mirror. Liverpool, Chelsea and RB Leipzig have also been linked.

- The Mirror reports Everton and Leeds United are considering moves for veteran Real Madrid star Marcelo.

Another day, another Erling Haaland rumour.

Haaland's future is dominating headlines amid widespread interest in Europe.

Barcelona are reportedly interested in the Borussia Dortmund sensation.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI OUT, HAALAND IN?

Barcelona have identified Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland as a top transfer priority if Lionel Messi leaves at the end of the season, according to Diario AS.

Messi is out of contract at season's end and the superstar Barca captain has been tipped to join either Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City.

Should Messi depart, Haaland is wanted by Barca and head coach Ronald Koeman, though all eyes will be on Lyon forward Memphis Depay if the former remains at Camp Nou.

Haaland has also been linked with Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus, PSG, Liverpool and City.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano claims City are convinced Kevin De Bruyne will sign a new contract with the club. Raheem Sterling's contract is also on the agenda, while soon-to-be free agent Sergio Aguero will decide his future in the coming weeks. Aguero has been linked with Inter, Barca and Chelsea.

United are set to challenge Madrid in the chase to sign Villarreal defender Pau Torres, reports The Mirror. United are keen to bolster their defence amid links with Madrid pair Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, Sevilla's Jules Kounde and RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate.

- Calciomercato says Inter will reject any offers for star Romelu Lukaku. It comes as Chelsea and Barca reportedly eye the in-form Belgian.

Barca are monitoring the future of Valencia star Jose Luis Gaya, according to Diario AS. The captain is negotiating a new contract with Valencia.

- Napoli and Spain midfielder Fabian Ruiz is wanted by LaLiga trip Barca, Madrid and Atletico Madrid, claims Diario Sport.

- Mundo Deportivo reports Arsenal are considering a move for Real Betis star Nabil Fekir amid doubts over loanees Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos.

If reports are to be believed, Lionel Messi will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

However, his next destination remains a mystery.

The United States, though, could be next on the list for the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

 

TOP STORY – MIAMI MOVE ON THE CARDS FOR MESSI?

Lionel Messi could be keen on joining David Beckham's Inter Miami in MLS, claims Sport.

Messi, whose contract is set to expire, is tipped to leave Barcelona at the end of the season amid strong links to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain and Premier League giants Manchester City.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner could be lured to the United States, where Beckham co-owns Inter Miami.

 

ROUND-UP

- According to The Sun, Manchester United are battling Barca and Real Madrid to sign Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde. United are reportedly determined to bolster their defence and Kounde has emerged as a key target.

Liverpool have made Torino defender Bremer their top transfer target at the end of the season, reports the Mirror. Despite the January arrivals of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, Liverpool still want to strengthen their defence.

- Spanish journalist Siro Lopez says Sergio Ramos has made his decision to leave Madrid. It comes as the likes of United, PSG, Juventus and Chelsea eye the superstar Madrid captain on a free transfer.

Madrid are interested in Real Betis midfielder Nabil Fekir, reports Estadio Deportivo. Inter, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Napoli are also believed to be eyeing the Frenchman.

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