Real Madrid v Girona: The battle of the corporates

A fairy tale race where it is not so easy to back the underdogs ...
Girona v Real Madrid - September 2023
Girona v Real Madrid - September 2023 / Soccrates Images/GettyImages

This weekend you get to take your pick. Spain’s most dominating force, the largest backers of the European Super League, or the fairy tale story of their billionaire-owned closest rival?

It is Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid versus City Football Group’s Girona, of course. The battle of a top two few pundits could have predicted.

After their last meeting in September, a swift 3-0 victory for Real at Girona’s Catalan home, many thought the latter’s surprisingly strong start would soon peter out. Few would have believed that when the sides met again this weekend there would only be 2 points separating them at the top.

Girona, outside of the cynicism around their ownership model, have had a truly remarkable rise to the upper echelons. Only two years ago, they were sitting in Spain’s second division. Only seven years ago, they reached Spain’s top division for the first time in their 93-year history.

Twenty years ago, the last time a side outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid won the La Liga title, Girona were in the third division of Spanish football. They were even relegated to the fourth division the following year.

If last season’s 10th-place finish was impressive, this year’s performance is barely believable. On the face of it, it is your classic David and Goliath.

Real Madrid have spent a total of €573 million euros in transfer fees on their squad, Girona just €33.75 million. On wages, Madrid have a spending limit of €727.5 million, the Catalans €52 million.

The sharpest comparison comes in their star players. Real’s Jude Bellingham and Girona’s Artem Dovbyk both lead the La Liga scoring charts with 14 goals a piece but the fees paid for each of them are far from equal. Dovbyk cost $7.5 million, Bellingham €103 million.

Dovbyk in fact leads Bellingham on combined goals and assists in the league so far. It is simply remarkable value for money.

Girona and the CFG

But look a little deeper and it’s not so dreamy. Girona are owned by a combination of City Football Group, Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners, and Pere Guardiola, Man City boss Pep’s brother.

Since Pere first got involved in the club in 2015 as an adviser and dealmaker, the Catalan side have loaned a total of 19 players from Manchester City or CFG-owned clubs. Allowing them to strengthen their squad with highly talented youngsters without expenditure on transfer fees or large wages.

Key stars Aleix Garcia and Yangel Herrera are current examples of City rejects who have found a home in Girona. Their star winger Savio is more like a CFG employee than a Girona player, having been purchased by the group and assigned to CFG club Troyes in 2022

He was then loaned to Girona this season with the idea reportedly to move him to the top of the pyramid at City by the summer. It is a merry-go-round of young stars in the pursuit of footballing world domination. Girona are just City’s latest success story.

This is not to say the achievement of the Catalan side genuinely fighting for the La Liga title is not remarkable. It is. Any side winning a major European league on such a shoestring budget would be astonishing. But perhaps not the guilt-free fairy tale we all wish for.

It is modern football after all.

A makeshift Madrid backline

Outside of financial arrangements, this game has the potential to be a genuine title decider. Win and Real would lead the league by 5 points, a gap hard to believe Girona could close. Lose and they drop to second, the title well and truly in the balance.

Both sides go into the match weakened. Real will face La Liga’s top scorers with a makeshift defence. Nacho is likely out, Antony Rudiger is a doubt and both David Alaba and Eder Militao are already on the sidelines.

Girona on the other hand will be without their manager Michel, the mastermind behind the club’s ascension to the top table. He was sent off last week during a frustrating 0-0 draw with Real Sociedad as Herrera's would-be winning goal was controversially disallowed by VAR for an offside that took place 37 seconds before.

Herrara himself and defender Daley Blind will also be missing due to suspension, putting strain on their defensive and offensive abilities in a comparatively small squad.

For Girona, this is their opportunity to tilt the race back in their favour, a race many felt slipping away following three draws in their last six. They had previously only drawn twice and lost once. Real, in comparison, have 16 points from a possible 18. The benefit of experience kicking in?

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Only the remaining weeks will tell.

For the neutral, as strange as it may be, a Manchester City-owned club could be the rightful moral choice this weekend…

Well, let’s not go that far. Maybe the lesser of two evils.