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Surprise Liga leaders Girona thriving with City help

When Girona circled Saturday’s visit of Real Madrid on their calendar, they could not have imagined they would be hosting Carlo Ancelotti’s champions at their Montilivi stadium – capacity under 15,000 – as La Liga leaders.

And yet the Catalans, promoted in 2022 and in only their fourth ever season in Spain’s top flight, have racked up six consecutive wins and are undefeated thus far, with 19 points from seven games.

It is a dream situation for both Spanish coach Michel and sporting director Quique Carcel, although both state that the club’s goal is no grander than simply surviving in La Liga.

“We’re making the most of this exceptional moment,” Carcel told AFP.

“We have a very clear objective, which is to stay up, but the fact that we already have 19 points gives us a lot of security.”

The club, which was founded in 1930, was bought out in 2017 by City Football Group, the UAE-based parent company of Manchester City.

City coach Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere, Girona’s chairman, told Sport “50 percent of the work is done”.

Girona coach Michel is not getting carried away, telling supporters to take a screenshot of the team at the top of the table, but insisting “the only objective is to stay up”.

Having trawled the lower leagues for the majority of their 93-year existence, the club’s restraint is understandable.

However Girona are earning plenty of admirers elsewhere.

For Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez, the neighbours’ impressive start to the season comes as no surprise.

“They deserve a lot of credit for being a spectacular team,” Xavi told reporters.

“They’ve been doing things well for a number of years, their project is very clear and they have a very good coach, Michel.”

Playing an attacking game, Girona finished last season in tenth place, just four points behind Osasuna, who qualified for the Europa League Conference play-offs.

“It’s true that we feel a lot stronger than when we first went up to La Liga (in 2017),” continued Carcel.

“We have to remain humble, but also have the ambition to take a step forward this season.”

They are thriving despite losing several key figures from last season’s squad, including defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu and striker Taty Castellanos, their top scorer across all competitions, who was on loan from New York City.

“Even though we’ve lost four first-team regulars, we’ve kept 15 or 16 players from last season’s squad … who believe in what the coach is trying to achieve,” added the sporting director.

‘Competitive advantage’

The Catalans have recruited smartly this summer, aided by the structure of the City Football Group and its sprawling recruitment and scouting network.

Girona, 47 percent owned by Sheikh Mansour, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates’ organisation, signed Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk, the most expensive recruit in the club’s history at 7.5 million euros ($8 million), Venezuelan midfielder Yangel Herrera, bought from Manchester City for five million euros ($5.3 million), and Brazilian winger Savinho, on loan from Troyes, who has sparkled.

These three players have been key in Girona’s successful start.

Girona also signed Dutch defender Daley Blind and loaned defender Eric Garcia from Barcelona among other deals.

Centre-back Garcia’s winner at Villarreal in midweek was the goal which propelled Girona to the top of the table.

Carcel says Girona are “great to watch” and have “a competitive advantage” over rivals due to the support of the City Football Group on “infrastructure, scouting, care and nutrition”.

On the pitch, Carcel says the “magic” happens because Michel has enough talent at his fingertips to play his attacking football.

It’s a recipe which is working, with Girona netting 18 goals in their first seven games — no other Liga side has more.

Madrid coach Ancelotti says the Catalan side have a “very big advantage” — not having to worry about European competition.

“They have the chance to prepare well for games each week,” said the Italian.

“We have tiredness, injuries, we don’t have time to recover.”

Girona will look to make that count at Montilivi on Saturday, where they have beaten Madrid twice in their last four games there, including a 4-2 romp last season, with Castellanos netting all four goals.