Girona arrive, but the challenge is to stay
Who would win LaLiga 2023-24?
Eyebrows would have been raised if answers to this question had any name other than the big three of Spanish football -- Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid -- at the start of the season.
Diego Simeone's Atletico have certainly earned the right to be acknowledged as Spanish giants, but even they managed to win the title only twice -- the 2013-14 and the 2020-21 seasons -- in the last decade with the rest going to either Real Madrid or Barcelona during that period. In fact, Valencia were the last team outside of the aforementioned big three to have won the title, and that was 19 years ago.
But with almost half of the ongoing season completed, a surprise package in Girona are second on the table only due to goal difference. With 14 wins, three draws, and a single defeat in 18 matches, they have gathered 45 points, equal with Real Madrid who also played equal number of games.
Girona have been around the top half of the table almost from the beginning. Since starting only their fourth season in Spain's top-flight with a 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad, the charges of Spanish coach Michel have only lost once -- a 3-0 thrashing to record 35-time champions Real Madrid at the Estadi Montilivi in September.
However, they have turned things around since then, giving Carlo Ancelotti's side a run for their money in their bid to regain the title from defending champions Barcelona.
The most inspiring outcome for Girona was when they stunned their Catalan neighbours and one of the usual title contenders, Barcelona, in their visit to the Olympic Stadium -- a temporary home for Xavi's men.
While it was a pulsating battle, Girona managed to take the lead, restore it once levelled, and then walk out comfortable victors in a 4-2 win which was also their first-ever triumph over Barcelona in a top-flight encounter.
Girona have done it time and again this season. Comeback wins of identical 2-1 margins away to Sevilla, Villarreal, and at home against Valencia, a 5-3 crushing of Mallorca in a game in which they conceded first, and holding their nerves to snatch all three points with late winners against Las Palmas and Celta Vigo -- all these show that they have enough character in their ranks that make their surge even more formidable.
Utilising the scouting resources provided by City Football Group -- a multi-club model of which Girona are a part of -- they have acquired the services of two Ukrainians in Viktor Tsygankov and Artem Dovbyk, who have now turned themselves into one of the most dynamic and cogent attacking forces in Spain. With 11 goals from 17 matches, Dovbyk has not only put himself firmly in the Pichichi race but also has been a major force behind Girona scoring the most goals (42 Goals For) this season so far.
Girona have already earned comparisons to Claudio Ranieri's Leicester City that surprised the whole world by clinching the Premier League title in 2016. Parallels could also be drawn from facts that managers of both the clubs -- Leicester's Ranieri in 2016 and Michel of Girona in 2023 -- maintained a humble demeanour all the while continuing to shock everyone.
"I don't know if we have the ability to win LaLiga, but we are able to beat any opponent," Michel had said following his side's win over Barcelona.
Despite repeated success in almost every game week, it was always a fanciful notion that Leicester would finally go on to do the unthinkable till they actually did it. Such is the case with Girona as well.
They are indeed in the top part of the table, and it is undeniable that they have now become a serious title contender. But can they pull it off?
In what is still a long way to go, Girona will face some sterner tests ahead -- yet to face Simeone's Atletico and also have a crucial tour to the Santiago Bernabeu for the return leg in February.
No European pressure on them unlike the other three Spanish giants will make it easier for them with room to rest and rotate the squad by prioritising each LaLiga encounter as they come by.
Coming this far, Girona, a club that are having to use a rented golf course to train, cannot surely let up. Even if nothing, they have at least earned the right to dream the unthinkable and push for it with all they have.