Girona’s impressive season has already seen them beat Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, scoring four times on each occasion. Defeat Real Madrid on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabéu (stream LIVE at 11:30 a.m. ET, on ESPN+ ) and the two words they are struggling to shake off will echo even louder around European football: Leicester City.
The unexpected 2015-16 Premier League champions are the reference point for any smaller team trying to topple the established elite. In LaLiga, a competition dominated by Madrid, Barça, and, at times, Atlético in recent years, Girona edge closer to “doing a Leicester” with each point they pick up.
Míchel’s side were expected to drop away when Madrid ended their seven-game unbeaten start to the season back in September. They have not lost in 15 league games since. The bubble was supposed to burst when they travelled to Barça in December; they won 4-2. It was then expected to pop when they hosted Atlético at the start of January; they won 4-3.
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Girona are just not going away. They have lost just once in 23 matches in the Spanish top flight this year. They have 56 points, two fewer than leaders Madrid, and will move to the top of the table with 14 fixtures remaining if they can add Carlo Ancelotti’s side to their list of victims on Saturday.
It would represent a remarkable achievement for a team that, while benefitting from being part of the City Football Group (CFG), operate with the seventh-smallest spending cap in LaLiga. Their record signing is striker Artem Dovbyk who, at €7.5 million, cost a fraction of the €100m Madrid splashed on Jude Bellingham, but it is those two players who lead the league’s scoring charts with 14 goals each this season.
And yet they play thrilling football fitting of a team with a much bigger budget. They are the top scorers in LaLiga with 52 goals, average over 56% possession per game, and have almost been unplayable at their pressing and harrying best. Valencia striker Hugo Duro was full of admiration after losing at Montilivi in December. He said Girona “play with you” and “don’t let you breathe,” adding “there is a reason they are league leaders.”
However, they are not at the very top at the moment. That spot is held by this weekend’s opponents Madrid, who are doing all they can to ensure Spain does not get its version of the Leicester fairytale.
The odds on Leicester to win the Premier League at the start of the 2015-16 season were 5,000-1. The knock-on effect of their incredible triumph is that bookmakers now act more cautiously when it comes to outsiders in Europe’s top five leagues. Now that a “Leicester” has happened, we might never see those odds again. Girona began the season as a 1,000-1 bet.
Those Leicester odds tumbled as Claudio Ranieri’s side produced upset after upset eight years ago. It took them 12 games to record a clean sheet, which eventually arrived after Ranieri promised the players pizzas in exchange for each shutout. From there, they went from strength to strength. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in front of him, recorded 15 clean sheets in total. N’Golo Kanté never stopped running, Danny Drinkwater traded his right foot for a wand, Riyad Mahrez provided the flair, and Jamie Vardy scored goals.
The comparisons with Leicester have been omnipresent as Girona’s odds have tumbled down to below 7-1 with ESPN BET before the Madrid game.
Just as Kanté, Mahrez, and Vardy emerged as stars for Leicester, household names are being created at Girona. Sávio, the electric Brazilian winger on loan from fellow CFG team Troyes, could even make the same move Mahrez made to Manchester City. Sources told ESPN’s Rob Dawson this week that the reigning European champions are interested in the youngster.
Míchel’s front-foot style of football is getting the best out of nearly everyone in the squad. Full-backs Miguel Gutiérrez and Yan Couto, who is on loan from Man City, and midfielder Aleix García are also being linked with bigger clubs. Ukrainian duo Dovbyk and Viktor Tsyhankov are proving shrewd pick-ups and players like Daley Blind and Eric García, unwanted at Bayern Munich and Barça, are having exceptional years.
A potentially season-defining month of February began with a goalless draw against a Real Sociedad side who have reached the UEFA Champions League round of 16 and Copa del Rey semifinals this season.
“I told him to stop winning so much!” La Real coach Imanol Algucail said as he revealed his pitchside chat with Míchel after last weekend’s stalemate at Montilivi. “They are having such a great season. Let’s see if they’re capable of sustaining it because, honestly, it’s a delight to watch them play on a good day.”
Next up are Madrid and then a trip to San Mamés to face the in-form Athletic Club. Atlético manager Diego Simeone, the only coach to stop Madrid or Barça winning LaLiga since Rafa Benítez managed it with Valencia back in 2004, says these next fixtures are key to Girona’s title hopes.
“Girona will go as far as their focus takes them,” Simeone told ESPN before they were held by La Real. “They have three big matches now that will reveal where they could end up. These games will be telling. They have maintained the pace until now.
“They have a smart manager in Míchel who is doing a great job. He was already doing a good job and they gave him better players. When a manager has better players, he turns into a better manager. He also has young players, which helps the team stay humble and maintain that desire.”
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Girona have also improved defensively, which was their Achilles heel earlier in the campaign when leaking two or even three goals in wins over Granada, Mallorca, and Osasuna. Of their eight clean sheets this season, four have come in their last seven outings, even without the promise of pizzas.
“The number of goals they are conceding has reduced,” Simeone added. “It was too high for a team to win the league, but if that goes down and they improve or maintain their success in attack … it would be wonderful for Spanish football that, after us, there is another team that can challenge Barça and Madrid.”
Similarities and differences
Like Leicester in their title-winning campaign, Girona are in just their second successive season in the top flight after promotion from LaLiga 2 in 2022. Like Ranieri, Míchel aimed to hit the 40-point mark earmarked for survival. Neither were expected to challenge for Europe, let alone the top spot.
However, Girona are scoring points much quicker than Leicester. In December, they became the first team in Europe’s top five leagues to reach 40 points this season. They have nine points more than Leicester did at the same stage of the 2015-16 season, averaging 2.43 points per game vs. 2.04.
“I’ve said it before: we are Girona and Leicester are Leicester,” Girona sporting director Quique Cárcel told ESPN. “Leicester achieved something huge in the Premier League. Girona, at the moment, are making a lot of people dream, those who know that LaLiga is [usually] for Madrid, Barça or Atlético.
“They are the big teams, so when a team like Girona appears, people like that feeling that a new team is capable of fighting with the big teams. We have to enjoy the moment and try and take advantage of it, while knowing that what Leicester did is very complicated. We have to take things game by game so that one day we really can think that we could be the next Leicester.”
As cities and clubs, though, Leicester and Girona differ. The population of Leicester is over 350,000, three times bigger than Girona, while the King Power Stadium is a more modern stadium with a capacity for 32,000 fans. Girona’s Montilivi home is quaint, but it is exposed to the elements in the winter, the grandstands shaking in the wind, and can only hold 14,000.
There is little history of football in Girona at the top level, either. A town that is often more associated with basketball or cycling, this is just their fourth-ever season in the top flight. Leicester’s title came in their 48th season in England’s top tier. They had been runners-up as far back as 1929 and won the League Cup in 1964, 1997, and 2000.
As Leicester kept their heads in 2016, all around them lost theirs. None of Man City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal were close to challenging them in the final weeks of the season. Tottenham came closest to making it a two-horse title race but fell away to finish third. Leicester won the league with 81 points, the third-lowest tally of any Premier League champion in the 21st century. Arsenal were 10 points back with 71.
The path is not clearing in the same way for Girona. Madrid, even shorn of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and defenders Éder Militão and David Alaba for much of the season, are unrelenting. They are unbeaten in 17 league games and had won six in a row before last weekend’s draw against Atlético.
Even Barça and Atlético, two teams that are underperforming, are putting up more of a fight than any of Leicester’s opposition. With 50 and 48 points respectively, both are ahead of Leicester’s mark of 47 points after 23 games.
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“I think that is the big difference [with Leicester],” defender Eric García told ESPN. “This season we have, us, Madrid, Barca, and Atletico… and hardly anyone is losing games. Everyone is picking up points, so it’s going to be tougher for sure.”
Tougher but not necessarily impossible. Girona are on track for over 92 points. Only Madrid have ever been second at this stage of the season with more points — 57 in both 2011 and 2014. What better way to prolong the dream than by laying down a marker this weekend?
“Winning at the Bernabéu would make a real statement and people would really believe Girona are in the race,” midfielder Aleix García told ESPN. “It will still be tough [to win the league] with so many games left to play, but we are having a great season and we want to make that statement at Madrid. Then, when the final matches of the campaign arrive, we will see where we are and what we can fight for.
“I was in England [at Man City] during that Leicester season. It was spectacular to see a recently promoted team win the league. It’s natural that people compare us with them. But we are aware that there are still a lot of points to play for. We’re playing well and enjoying ourselves, but we have to keep up this consistency in the remaining games.”
But even if Girona try to play down their chances, with coach Míchel urging people to wait until 30 games have passed before making judgements, the sight of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli singing on the King Power Stadium pitch to celebrate Leicester’s success in 2016 will, in some small way, fuel belief they can go to Madrid and win this weekend. And after that, who knows?
“These are the beautiful things that can happen in football,” Girona goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga told ESPN this week. “Suddenly a surprise can appear from nowhere.”