BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona was the Spanish league champion last season. Now it is just the second-best team in the Catalonia region.
Girona has upstaged its much more popular regional rival so far, winning 12 of 15 games to sit atop the table level on points with Real Madrid.
Barcelona trails the leading pair by four points before it welcomes Girona at its Estadi Olimpic home on Sunday.
In just its fourth season in the top-flight, Girona is the undisputed surprise side in Spain and turning heads across Europe. Coach Míchel Sánchez has a group with no stars leading the league in scoring with 34 goals, one more than Madrid and five more than Barcelona. Ukraine striker Artem Dovbyk with his seven goals leads a team that has 12 players scoring at least once.
Girona is partly owned by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership. However, its salary cap is only the 13th biggest in the 20-team league topped by Madrid's 727 million euros ($795 million). Barcelona, which has been hit by financial trouble in recent seasons, is allowed to spend 270 million euros ($290 million) on its team salaries, the third biggest.
Girona’s only loss came in September to Madrid by 3-0. Last round, it fought back with two late goals to beat Valencia 2-1 at home.
Its breakout season comes after fellow Catalan club Espanyol, based in Barcelona city, was relegated to the second division. So the team that dresses in red and white is poised to at least become the second strongest side in the relatively wealthy Catalonia region near France.
But as Girona CEO Ignasi Mas-Bagà recently told The Associated Press, their objective is to grow and consolidate as a top-flight club, not displace Barcelona, a team that has millions of fans around the globe and is close to being a religion inside Catalonia.
“We don’t want to compete with Barcelona (for fans). Not at all. I believe we would be making a mistake if that were our strategy,” Mas-Bagà said. “But we do want to be a club that is not divisive, that has a friendly face, and has a different approach to being close to supporters.”
No matter the result of the regional derby this weekend, Girona will still be ahead of Barcelona when it starts its two-hour journey back home.
Barcelona is in need of the win to ensure it keeps in touch with Madrid and Girona.
Iñaki Peña will be in goal for the defending league champions for a fourth straight game after Marc-Andre ter Stegen was sidelined by a back problem that requires surgery. Peña made some big saves in a 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid in the last round.
Girona will be without midfielder Yangel Herrera, who the club says will be out for six weeks with a muscle injury he picked up against Valencia.
Two Barcelona players are on loan at Girona, youngster Pablo Torre and defender Éric García. But Girona won’t be able to field Torre against Barcelona, due to a clause in his loan contract that says he can’t play against the club that owns his rights. García will be available since his loan deal did not include such a clause.
Madrid visits Real Betis on Saturday with several injured players unavailable for Carlo Ancelotti.
Defender Dani Carvajal was added to Madrid’s injury list this week with a calf injury that is expected to sideline him until next year. He joins Thibaut Courtois, Éder Militão, Eduardo Camavinga, Vinícius Júnior, and Aurélien Tchouaméni. Ancelotti says he hopes to have the injured Luka Modrid back in time for Betis.
Fourth-placed Atletico hosts last-placed Almeria on Sunday aiming to stay close to the top teams. Atletico also has another game in hand.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press