Real Madrid got their trip to Benito Villamarin out of the way already this season. It was back in October, where Zidane’s men slung in six goals en route to a huge away victory. The timing of that match was favourable, given that since then, under new head coach Victor Sanchez, Betis have been a tough matchup at home — giving both Barcelona and Sevilla hellfire in the post-Poyet era.
On Sunday, Real Madrid host Victor’s men, and to help set the stage, I reached out to Ben Hardman (@Hardmanbs) of BlogBetis. Q&A below.
Kiyan: Ben, when I reached out to you for this Q&A, you said you're expecting a beating. Here's some perspective though -- you've turned a corner in the post Poyet era thanks to some good work from Victor Sanchez. Maybe a tight game is not out of the question? Also keep in mind that last season against Real Madrid, Adan turned into Dino Zoff.
Ben: Last time out against Real Madrid we got turned over at home 6-1 and last time we played in the Bernabeu we got routed 5-0, so I’m not expecting bright things this time around, especially with just two wins in our last 10 games. Madrid have scored in every single game they’ve played in since April 2016, which means they’re almost guaranteed to score against our leaky defence. Unfortunately, Betis don’t quite have the same fire power with 28 goals in 26 league games this season, so I’m not feeling overly optimistic about this one.
Kiyan: I don't think many thought Victor Sanchez would improve the team that much, if at all. What's changed? What's he done differently?
Ben: Victor had a very impressive and encouraging start to his Betis tenure and got the team playing some nice, attacking football after the sheer dullness we had to endure under Gus Poyet. However, it seems lately that Victor is morphing into Poyet and his encouraging start has tailed off, which has caused some grumblings amongst Beticos who are not happy with the mediocrity. In Poyet’s first seven games in charge at Betis he gathered eight points. Compare this to Victor’s last seven games where he’s earned just six points.
I feel for Victor though, I think he’s got good potential but to simply put it, the players he has at his disposal are extremely mediocre with hardly any of the (many) summer signings doing anything of note. Victor admitted after the draw against Depor that he accepts the critics, but that he “doesn’t have a Messi”. I think he'll stay till the summer, then hopefully bring in some quality.
Kiyan: Ruben Castro is your Aduriz -- the fine wine of the team; but tell us about Ceballos and his development this season.
Ben: Ruben Castro certainly is the finest of Canary Islander wines, and hasn’t been given the credit he deserves. Since I started BlogBetis back in 2013, he is without doubt the player I’ve given most praise to; going from Spanish league journeyman to Real Betis legend and the club’s all-time top goalscorer. At points it seemed he was the only player who ever scored.
Last season Ruben was the second highest Spanish goalscorer in La Liga with 19 goals, one behind the leader Aduriz, and the season before that Ruben bagged 19 goals in Segunda during the promotion campaign.
Even at the age of 35 Castro is still rattling in the goals but it seems in recent weeks that his time at Betis, and under Victor, is coming to a natural end. He's got eight goals this season (same number as Aduriz) but Ruben Ceballos’ potential is there for all to see. Two years ago he was the focal point of the Betis team that gained promotion to La Liga, and now in the top flight he is trying to stamp his authority. He craves the ball and is willing to do whatever he can to have an influence on the game – driving forward through central midfield, taking throw-ins, corners, freekicks, dishing out a few tasty tackles, picking the ball up off the defence and even the goalkeeper.
All of this is admirable, but also shows a touch of immaturity — after all he is still only 20 years old. His appetite is unwavering and from last season, his influence over games is increasing — but obviously there is still a lot to learn in terms of game management and using his talents most effectively. He can’t possibly do everything. For me, he is trying to influence the game from too deep a position, he needs to push up the field where Betis are in desperate need of a driving force going forward. This may also help him chip in with a few more goals (he’s still yet to score a single la liga goal, although he is getting closer after hitting the bar and missing a guilt edged chance to put Betis 2-0 up in their last game against Depor). I think he’s well on his way to becoming a star.
Kiyan: True or false: Sometimes you make a cup of hot cocoa, snuggle in bed with a blanket and go into a YouTube deep dive of highlight reels of Denilson and Joaquin murdering teams on the flanks.
Ben: Although part of that statement may be stretching the truth slightly, I certainly have watched highlight reels of Denilson and Joaquin in their heyday. Both were unbelievable sights to see and I only wish we had something as exciting to watch in our current team, but looking back is definitely fun. I recently wrote a long-form piece for These Football Times on the mercurial lost talent of Denilson and how he didn’t quite fulfil his potential but on his day, but could still tear any fullback a new one. Naturally this involved watching lots of videos of him skinning right backs and lefts backs, and only ever using his left foot!
Kiyan: Not a question, just a statement: I scored some goals with Victor in FIFA 98.
Ben: Good going! My memory doesn’t quite stretch back this far with vividness although I absolutely remember Blur’s Song 2 soundtrack, the indoor stadium, and slide-tackling the goalkeeper! I must admit I was a Pro Evolution Soccer man when this was released and was unbeatable with Juventus, setting up as a 4-3-3 with Pavel Nedved well and truly running the show through the centre.
Kiyan: Against Depor; Victor lined-up 6 defenders. Is that the approach you expect this weekend too?
Ben: It’s not the first time Victor has done this and I’m not a fan of it at all. The six defenders did include two wing-backs and a DM in Ryan Donk, but it still demonstrates a negative attitude. Against Real Madrid it could be expected, but against a lacklustre Deportivo side, I think it was completely unambitious. It got even worse later on in the game when we were trying to shut it down and we had three central defenders, four bonafide fullbacks and a defensive midfielder all on the pitch at the same time! To be fair, it probably would have paid off if the referee hadn’t given an atrocious penalty decision against Betis in the 92nd minute.
I’m probably expecting something similar against Real Madrid, although I would prefer to play as a 4-1-4-1 as Las Palmas did when they drew 3-3 at the Bernabeu.
Kiyan: What is the next step Real Betis need to take in order to make a leap and make a run at a European spot?
Ben: We need to recruit some players of quality because the squad we have at the minute simply isn't good enough. We've got a great goalkeeper, a good attacking left back in Durmisi, a decent centre back in Pezzella, and an excellent central midfielder in Ceballos, but when Ruben Castro and Joaquin call it a day, there’s little else I'm afraid. I have hope that Sanabria can turn a corner and put more effort in but we definitely need a successful recruitment phase.
Kiyan: Give us your prediction.
Ben: My heart tells me 3-2 to Betis with a last minute winner from Ruben Castro, but my brain tells me 5-0 Madrid.