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Girona Is Wide Awake

10:27 AM EST on January 4, 2024

Ivan Martin (Girona FC) celebrates with his teammates after scoring during La Liga football match between Girona FC and Atletico de Madrid, at Montilivi Stadium on January 3, 2024 in Girona, Spain. Foto: Siu Wu
Photo by Siu Wu/picture alliance via Getty Images

At this point, does it really make much sense to refer to Girona's season as a "dream?" The events of dreams can be unexpected and miraculous, which certainly applies here; the small Catalan club currently sits joint-top of La Liga's table after coming into the season with the primary goal of avoiding relegation. But the nature of dreams is founded in unreality, in nonsensical logic. And having reached the season's halfway point with the highest midseason point total ever amassed by a club outside of Spain's big three, and with the dazzling soccer expected of such heady figures, there can no longer be any question that Girona is in fact real as hell.

The halfway point of a season is typically a good time to assess a team's performance. After 19 matches and having faced every competitor in the competition, you can feel pretty confident that fluky results or unsustainably hot/cold stretches or schedule quirks will have more or less washed out, and what remains is a solid indication of a team's actual level. The Blanquivermells reached that midpoint on Wednesday in a home contest against Atlético Madrid. It was a fitting and potentially telling cap to Girona's stunning opening half to the campaign. Girona may have started the season on a tear, wowing Spain with an expressive and free-flowing style of play implemented by players and a manager who for the most part had never hinted at the potential for such greatness, but we've all seen small teams ride a month or two of lucky finishing and brave play to a surprisingly high spot in the table, only to fall back to earth when the sun melts the wax away. It would take time, and direct confrontations with the league's usual high-fliers, for Girona to prove itself as something more than an admirable but ultimately short-lived story of the week.

Well, the Atlético match, and the first half of the year it concluded, should serve as evidence of just that. Girona beat Atleti on Wednesday in a thrilling, confidence-boosting, and appropriately bonkers 4-3 barnstormer.

The game was exactly what you'd expect from two teams that each feature a pair of iron fists and a glass jaw. The goals came almost literally from the first minute to the last. Girona scored both bookenders, getting the opener from a pretty Valery Fernández curler in the second minute of the game and the late winner through an even more gorgeous Iván Martín scoop in second-half stoppage time. What appeared at one point like it might be a Girona romp—Daley Blind (yes, that Daley Blind) gave the Gironistes a well-deserved 3-1 lead after just 39 minutes—threatened to become an unforgivable missed opportunity when Álvaro Morata sealed a hat trick for himself by the 54th minute.

Everything that makes this Girona outfit what it is was on display: irrepressible attacking verve, the ability to create chances however they like (long punts into open space, nifty interplay in little pockets near the area, down the wings, through the middle, off of high-pressure turnovers, on set pieces), inexpert defending (Blind and García are both very talented center backs who thrive at just about everything other than protecting their penalty box; typically that defensive frailty is masked by playing a back three, and you could tell how the duo felt uncomfortable in a back four on Wednesday, often letting Morata bomb straight past them as if they'd forgotten there wasn't a third center back out there to pick him up), unshakable faith that if they play their game until the very end victory will eventually, inevitably come. As a non-Girona fan nonetheless smitten by their exploits, I was overjoyed when they took that 3-1 lead, then wildly entertained if also concerned when they gagged it up, and finally awed when they never dropped their heads and instead kept fighting for what wound up being Martín's winner. But what I never felt on Wednesday, and what no one who's followed this La Liga season close could've felt either, was doubt that this team is the realest of deals.

The win against Atleti put Girona on 48 points, the same total as league-leading Real Madrid, 10 more than both Atleti and Barcelona in third and fourth place, 13 more than Athletic Club in 5th. The team has legitimized its standing over the last month by beating Atlético at home and Barcelona away. That point total, and the performances that have earned it, make Girona enormous favorites to claim one of the top four places by season's end. Barring a major injury crisis, it would appear that Girona is already practically a lock to play in the Champions League next season. That alone would make Girona an unbelievable success story, but there's no reason why the Blanquivermells need to stop there. Real Madrid is surely the odds-on favorite to win the league title, but neither Atlético nor Barça seem today to be better equipped to mount a true title challenge than Girona.

It's hard not to notice in the broad thrust of Girona's season echoes of Leicester City's unforgettable title run in 2016. But I actually think there is at least one significant difference separating the two. From start to finish, I think it befit the nature of the Foxes's campaign to call it a dream run. Leicester had legitimate world-class talent on the roster, yes, but they didn't blow all comers off the pitch the way Girona has this season. There was still something more surreal about Leicester's triumph, something that made it never quite make total sense even as it happened. Girona seems different. This is a team that is simply playing better than everyone else in Spain, despite the size of its budget and the lack of prestige of the club's name. Leicester did the impossible by living in a dream from which they never woke up. If Girona repeats the feat, it will be after pinching themselves, realizing that nothing has changed, and charging ahead nonetheless in the knowledge that this really is real life.

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