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Sevilla a shadow of former selves

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They blew their opponents apart, tearing into them, voracious, implacable, unstoppable. They seemed to be coming from everywhere, swarming all over you like some kind of biblical plague. When people asked what the secret recipe was, the answer was: well, yeah, a secret recipe. At halftime they took special shakes, fruit and vegetable purées prescribed by a doctor that were a soccer player's equivalent of Popeye's can of Spinach. And then they went back onto the pitch and ripped into their opponents a little more.

They bombed up and down the wings, practically playing with two wide men on both sides and no one could deal with it. The pace was furious, there was no let up. They came forward in great big crashing waves, a footballing tsunami. After one match, Zinedine Zidane famously asked if one player was "on a motorbike" -- and that was before they'd really hit their peak.

Between 2005 and 2008, they won more trophies than anyone else in Spain. No, not Barcelona and certainly not Real Madrid. But Sevilla Fútbol Club. With every passing day, as the duopoly grows stronger, more unshakable, the fact that they didn't win the league in 2006-2007 looks like more of a tragedy; a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity sadly stolen away. Not just from them but from all of us. A tragedy for Spanish soccer. You can still see the miss at the Santiago Bernabéu that would surely have won them the title. The desperately bad luck, the accumulation of games. The tiredness that, by the end, even the shakes couldn't prevent.

So, they didn't win the league, even though they should have done. Instead, they won five other titles. Two UEFA Cups, the Copa del Rey, the Super Cup and the European Super Cup. They qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history; one moment's madness knocked them out. They had been unbeaten at the Sánchez Pizjuán -- a proper soccer stadium, loud, noisy, intense, rocking to inventive songs from the Marseillaise to the best soccer anthem in the country, Sevilla's Arrebato, a real feeling of communion between fans and pitch. Not bad for a side that hadn't won anything in 57 years.

Last year, they won the Copa del Rey again. They also qualified for the Champions League again. But if that looked like confirmation that Sevilla are a big club and will be for years, like they are a real competitor, the impression was slightly false. It disguised something, something inescapable: many, in fact most, of those Sevilla players are still around but that Sevilla has gone. There is something almost depressing about watching them now. They are no worse than most other teams in La Liga -- in fact they are miles better than most of them -- but they are worse than they were. They were great. Now, they are not.

When Sevilla were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Real Madrid last week, it was not just that they had been knocked out -- after all, a third successive semifinal is a pretty good record -- it was that there was a kind of inevitability about it. A sense of resignation. A bit more luck and Sevilla could have gone through -- a "goal" cleared off (over?) the line and another "goal" disallowed for a very questionable offside might have made all the difference. But in a way, it would have been more makeup on an ugly face. That wasn't the point. This wasn't the Sevilla we remember. The one it was impossible not to love.

It would be unfair to expect them to be, of course. And maybe the best response now would be simply to celebrate that team: to recall its moment of glory, to accept it as a one-off, the sudden emergence of something very, very special. Maybe it is not right to demand that of the current team. In fact, it definitely is not. Maybe fans have, as the Spanish phrase has it, become "mal acostumbrado:" they got used to having it so good, too used to it. Maybe it's only right to get used to something a little less.

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But that hurts. But there is still a certain sadness. No one can seriously expect Sevilla, or anyone else, to consistently compete with Madrid and Barcelona for reasons already discussed on these pages. But they are not competing with themselves any more either; it is not that they are not as good as the big two, it is that they are not as good as their former selves. This may sound like the most childish, superficial and imprecise of "analyses" but there's something that screams at you more than anything else these days: Sevilla are just not that much fun now. The Sánchez Pizjuán isn't even that full now. Not like it was. The decline may be slow but it feels inevitable and all too real.

Jesús Navas remains brilliant, but brittle. On the other wing, Diego Capel and Diego Perrotti have their days -- and very, very good ones too. Álvaro Negredo can be very good. But he can also be very bad. Renato is still there, Luis Fabiano is still there, and Fredi Kanouté is still there -- and there can hardly be a more graceful player in La Liga than Kanouté, gliding through games seemingly in slow motion, all smooth movements and skill. But they are older now, some of them well over 30, and less consistent. There is a kind of collective malaise about the team, a tiredness. They have seen better days and they know it. They need someone to inject them with life but there is no one. Even Palop, the goalkeeper who once scored a header to send his team through in Europe, isn't what he was.

Those who have come in have added little. Or nothing. And at a price. Monchi's Midas touch appears to have deserted him. The sporting director famous for buying great players for next to nothing seems to have started buying players whose contribution is next to nothing for great prices. Name a player in the Sevilla side who really, but really, impresses and you can guarantee he's not a new arrival. Anyone who is really good was there three years ago. Or four. Or five. There is little creativity, no flair, no spark. Look at the middle of the pitch: every now and again you think Romaric is getting to be good but he never quite gets there.

The intensity has gone. There is a temptation to reach the basic conclusion that Dani Alves has gone. Which might sound silly. But although it is almost certainly over simplistic -- after all, there are other factors -- there is more than element of truth in that. Alves was only a right back, except that he was not only a right back. "Dani Alves, Right Back" is about the most inadequate calling card you could possibly imagine.

Especially at Sevilla. It was as if he had the team tied to him by a piece of string. As one insider puts it: "We were a weird team in that our best player, by miles, was our fullback. The playmaker was a defender." In the bar where directors gather after games, just round the corner from the stadium, one member of staff is reminiscing: "Dani," he says, "was the best player in the world."

Even allowing for exaggeration, you can see his point. Alves used to start, continue and finish Sevilla's moves. He would get the ball from the goalkeeper, play it to the center back, get it back, play it to the midfielder, get it back, play it to the winger, get it back and roll it across for the striker to score. Alves left in 2008, Sevilla's success largely left with him. In his first season at Barcelona, he won the treble, in his second, the league, the European and Spanish Super Cups, and the World Club Cup. In five seasons he won twelve titles with two teams. At Sevilla, it was like he controlled the whole team, enthusing them with energy, intent, intensity, directness. With success.

With enjoyment.

Last weekend, Sevilla played Málaga. According to one headline it was "a toast to mediocrity". That hurt almost as much as the 30-point gap between them and Barcelona at the top. It was 0-0, it was tedious, and it was depressing. They used to be so much fun too.