By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Sevilla have taken La Liga by storm this season by rising to the top of the table while the usual suspects have floundered and the Andalusians can underline their title ambitions on Saturday when they visit champions Barcelona.
Barca are in the midst of their worst league run since 2016, having lost one and drawn three of their last four outings although they remain undefeated at home in any competition in over two years.
Sevilla have not won a league match at the Nou Camp since 2002 but this time they head to Barcelona in the unfamiliar position of being league leaders after winning their last four La Liga outings.
During that winning run, they have scored 14 goals and also thrashed Real Madrid 3-0.
After going through three coaches last season and scraping a European place by clinching seventh, the club hedged their bets on talented Spanish tactician Pablo Machin, who had turned Girona from second division strugglers into an established top flight side.
Machin has harnessed a highly attacking side built on the creativity of Argentine veteran Ever Banega and Spaniard Pablo Sarabia, while up front Wissam Ben Yedder and Andre Silva have scored a combined 12 league goals.
The addition of Portuguese forward Andre Silva, on loan from AC Milan, has proved particularly shrewd.
Silva was a flop in Italy, scoring two Serie A goals after a 38-million-euro ($44 million) move from Porto, but he has prospered in Spain. After netting a hat-trick on his league debut against Rayo Vallecano, he lies second in the list of La Liga top scorers this season with seven goals.
Sevilla have only a one-point lead over Barca and midfielder Aleix Vidal is under no illusions about the challenge that awaits his side.
“We’re going to a very difficult ground where 90 minutes can seem like a very long time if you are not fully concentrated,” Vidal told Sevilla’s official radio station.
“They have players who can kill a game off very quickly even if they are not performing very well in a game or are having a difficult moment in the season.”
With strikers Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez both resting in Catalonia during the international break and midfielder Sergi Roberto set to return, Barca will be confident of turning around their recent mediocre form.
The Catalans are short staffed in defence, however, with Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen both out injured.
Triple European champions Real Madrid are having an even tougher time than Barca, having failed to score in their last four games in all competitions, their longest stretch without scoring since 1985.
Even though Real are two points behind Sevilla in fourth, coach Julen Lopetegui is under pressure to pick up a victory at home to Levante on Saturday.
Third-placed Atletico Madrid visit Villarreal.
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)