Xavi has called for unity at Barcelona and refused to step down as manager after their LaLiga title defence took a huge hit this week – and he probably didn’t expect the reason why to be so close to home.
Barca were always in for a tough challenge to secure back-to-back titles with a resurgent Real Madrid led by Jude Bellingham and an ever-stubborn Atletico Madrid side to contend with, but so far this season all those Spanish giants have been bested by a surprise contender in the form of Girona FC.
The Catalan club founded in 1930 had only played in three top flight seasons before their current campaign, with this only their second year back in LaLiga following promotion from the Segunda Division via the play-offs in 2021/22, and yet they are punching well above their weight two points clear at the top of Spain’s premier league.
But how have they got here? Well, they’re part of the same football ownership group as Manchester City, for starters.
Girona were about to begin their first ever LaLiga campaign in 2017 when it was announced the City Football Group had acquired 44.3 per cent of the club.
They – with the help of five players signed on loan from City, including current Aston Villa star Douglas Luiz – achieved a top-half finish at their very first attempt in what was a historic campaign for the club.
They finished tenth to become the most successful LaLiga debutant in history, and their 14 league wins included a stunning 2-1 victory over reigning Spanish and European champions Real Madrid, plus a last-16 victory over Atletico in the Copa del Rey.
However, the following season saw the club relegated in 18th place, which began a City Group-led rebuild which never really took off as they finished fifth in Spain’s second division for two seasons running before finishing sixth in 2021/22, only to then strike gold in the play-offs.
Another tenth place finish followed on their return to the top table, but this season has been a fairytale journey for Catalonia’s third club.
Perhaps their success has something to do with the Guardiola name. No, not that one. Pere Guardiola. Pep’s younger brother.
The highly-regarded agent, who has represented Barcelona heroes Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez, stepped up into the role of chairman in 2020 and it appears he shares his brother’s thirst for success and knack at delivering it.
With the City Group’s backing, Guardiola has helped bring quality to the side in a number of former Premier League players, plus youngsters from Barca and Real Madrid.
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Former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani was signed ahead of their first LaLiga season in 2017 and is now captain of the club and their all-time top goalscorer with a record of 124 goals in 230 games.
But he has since been joined by former Manchester United defender Daley Blind and ex-Tottenham goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, while former Chelseamidfielder Oriol Romeu spent one season at the club last term following his arrival from Southampton, only to be snapped up by Barcelona in the summer.
And what has followed has been beyond Girona fans’ wildest dreams – top of LaLiga, in the last-32 of the Copa del Rey.
From 16 games played so far they have lost only once, a 3-0 defeat at home to Real Madrid, while they made more history in their most recent game with a coupon-busting 4-2 win over Barcelona… at the Nou Camp.
Time will tell whether plucky Girona can keep their remarkable run going… but didn’t we all say that about Leicester in 2016?