Some fifty miles north of the Alboran Sea which separates Spain from Morocco, on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada, lies a city that has quite a tale to tell. For centuries, Granada existed in a state of flux with the magnificent Alhambra acting as the last great stand of Islam on the Iberian Peninsular.
Moorish rule of the city finally ended in early 1492 (the same year that Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas) with the conclusion of the Siege of Granada, a vital moment in the formation of Christian Spain as we now know it. Granada’s importance may have diminished with the passing of time but you don’t have to spend long here to get a feel for its diverse and complex history that has helped shape the city that exists today.
The Alhambra still looms large over the old Albayzín neighbourhood, which in parts feels more like it belongs over the sea in Morocco than in mainland Europe. The cobblestone Calle Calderería Nueva contains all the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling Arab medina and throughout the maze-like Albayzín and beyond, typical Andalusian joints share the narrow alleyways with shisha bars, Syrian restaurants and Moroccan tea houses.
Over the past century, rather more soulless suburbs have been added as the city’s urban area has swelled to make it home to almost half a million people. Granada’s heyday has certainly been and gone but the ancient streets are today brightened up by the large number of students who come to study at the city’s almost 500 year old university, the fourth largest in the country.
Granada’s historical significance doesn’t really stretch to the football pitch however. Granada CF was founded in 1931 but Los Nazaríes have spent more time outside the top two divisions than they have in the Primera and were playing their football in the Tercera División (Spain’s fourth tier) as recently as 2006.
They’ve never won a major trophy and their most recent stint in the top flight ended in 2017 with a miserable campaign as perhaps the most international squad ever compiled by a Spanish team failed to gel and El Graná finished bottom of the pile with only four wins and just twenty points.
The less said about the brief reign of Tony Adams at the end of that season the better. The Englishman inherited something of a sinking ship and his bumbling attempts to save it became the butt of jokes and the subject of internet memes. Such was the state Granada found themselves in during the summer of 2017, it wouldn’t have been a great surprise had they found themselves battling against back-to-back relegations the following year.
Adams did get one thing right however. Initially appointed in an advisory role to the club’s Chinese owners, he was eager to emphasise the need for a shift away from a diverse squad that featured no fewer than 20 different nationalities to a more ‘local’ approach both on and off the pitch.
The owners evidently took his advice on board and a move towards finding not just Spanish but Andalusian talent helped the club to a solid mid-table finish in the Segunda as the foundations were laid for a promotion charge the following season under the dynamic leadership of a young coach by the name of Diego Martínez.
Young should not be confused with inexperienced however. Martínez had been schooling himself for such a challenge ever since his playing career was brought to an abrupt halt in his early 20’s. Although a Vigo native, his education as a coach came principally in the province of Granada with minnows Imperio de Albolote, Arenas Armilla and Motril and a decade on from his departure from the latter, he found himself spearheading Granada CF’s push for a return to the top flight.
Defensively much improved, Granada kept nineteen clean sheets en route to automatic promotion from the 2018-19 Segunda Division. They backed that up by recruiting smartly over the summer with Darwin Machis rejoining the club and Roberto Soldado arriving on a free to bolster their attacking options.
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To say they’ve managed to build on that momentum would be something of an understatement. Despite their status as one of the clear favourites for the drop, Granada have taken La Liga by storm so far. Remarkably they needed just ten games to match their total points tally from the nightmare 2016-17 campaign with a 1-0 victory over Andalusian rivals Real Betis sending them to the summit of the Spanish top flight for the first time since 1973.
While the easy headlines of a miracle rise predictably did the media rounds, anyone who has paid attention to the goings on at the club over the past two years will vouch that this is anything but an overnight success story. In a country where foreign owners have had limited success and are frequently the subject of fan anger and widespread media criticism, Granada appear to be bucking the trend with sensible recruitment both on and off the pitch key in the reversal of their fortunes over the past two years.
Even pre-season showed clear signs that Granada might just surprise a few people on their return to La Liga with Martínez’s men winning all of their six friendly games with Sevilla and Real Valladolid among their victims. That being said, they still clearly do not have a budget or squad that is blessed with the sort of quality that suggests they should be mixing it with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona and a midweek defeat at Getafe served up a bit of a reality check heading into Sunday night’s unlikely top of the table showdown with Real Sociedad.
Judging by the number of blue and white shirts in the centre of Granada, plenty of Sociedad fans had made the long journey down from the Basque Country for the game. Granada tops were a bit harder to pick out although there were probably plenty hidden underneath coats on what was turning into a chilly evening in a city which at almost a kilometre above sea level feels the cold much more than most of its Andalusian neighbours.
The Nuevo Estadio de Los Cármenes is located on the southern fringes of the city but in a relatively pleasant part of town. It’s easily reached by Granada’s shiny new metro service which only opened in 2017 and dissects the city by running from the nearby municipality of Armilla to Arbolote, coincidentally the destinations of the current Granada boss’ first two coaching assignments.
In contrast to the tight alleyways and stairwells of the historic old centre, there’s plenty of space surrounding the stadium which was only opened in the 1990’s but has already gone through a few renovations, the most recent of which came in preparation for their top flight return over the summer.
There’s still a slightly makeshift feel to the exterior though with plenty of gaps allowing passers by a clear view of the pitch and the fans gathered inside. One of the stands feels modern with a swanky new club shop but other sections of the stadium look more like relics of the 1950’s or 60’s than the 90’s.
With ticket prices starting at 35 Euros for the game in what is one of the poorest parts of Spain, there’s still perhaps a bit more the club could be doing to draw in new fans to take advantage of this current wave of euphoria that has greeted Granada’s extraordinary rise.
In terms of the match build-up though, they are clearly getting plenty right. The pre-game light-show may not be able to compete with those in some of the larger modern arenas in La Liga but it did a nice job of setting the tone and getting the fans geared up for the club’s anthem which was sung with gusto on all four corners of the ground. It’s a soft, melodic offering in parts that builds up to a big chorus and it really is one of Spanish football’s most spine-tingling offerings, particularly under the lights ahead of a big game with scarves in the air on all four sides of Los Cármenes.
Even from a neutral perspective, there was already plenty of excitement heading into the fixture to see how two of La Liga’s surprise packages would shape up against one another. That was ramped up a bit for the home fans by the failure of all the ‘big three’ teams to win earlier in the weekend meaning Granada would return to the top should they manage to record a fifth straight home victory. Real Sociedad meanwhile knew they’d leapfrog their opponents and move level on points with leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid with three points although they were hampered by an injury to their young star Martin Ødegaard.
Despite the absence of the Norwegian, perhaps the standout performer so far in La Liga 2019/20, La Real quickly found their rhythm and started the game on the front foot, winning three corners in an opening ten minutes which saw them largely camped inside the Granada half.
It was a good response from Sociedad to a shock home defeat against Levante but with what was virtually their first real attack, it was Granada who almost grabbed the opening goal. Venezuelan midfielder Yangel Herrera’s swivelling effort from long range forced Sociedad keeper Álex Remiro to dive to his left and parry the ball clear of danger.
That did plenty to raise the decibel levels around a stadium which had just started to become a little subdued by the dominance the visitors had shown in the opening exchanges. Like many clubs in Spain, Granada’s ‘singing’ section is located at one end of the ground and they were doing their best to act as orchestrators even if only one or two songs went stadium-wide.
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Sociedad though were unperturbed and continued to boss possession as if they were the home team. Finding gaps in a Granada defence that had only conceded one goal in five home league games since their return to the top flight was always going to be a challenge but with 21 minutes on the clock, they were given a helping hand by a wayward pass from the home team’s centre-back Germán Sánchez.
Mikel Oyarzabal took full advantage by collecting the ball and quickly spraying a forward pass through to the advancing Portu who was alert to the opportunity to finally catch the Granada defence off guard. The former Girona man took one touch to control the ball and another to bury it into the corner to give the visitors a lead that their early dominance probably warranted.
La Real continued to play with the positivity of the bold young team that they are and for a brief moment it looked as though they might get a chance to double their advantage. Granada full-back Carlos Neva diverted the ball behind his own goalline with his arm and despite initially signalling for a corner, referee Prieto Iglesias received a message in his ear instructing him to go over and check the monitor for a possible penalty.
In situations like this, there’s often only one outcome with the insinuation from VAR being that the referee has most likely made the wrong call. The incident was played on the big screen and even many Granada fans appeared willing to accept that it was probably a penalty. That didn’t stop them whistling though and after a long, hard look at the incident, Iglesias decided to stick with his original decision to the delight of the Nuevo Estadio de Los Cármenes.
Were the match being played in the Basque Country rather than Andalusia, you wonder if the outcome might have been different given it was a very marginal call even allowing for the latest changes to the handball rules.
The sense that this was potentially going to be a major turning point in the match was compounded only a few moments later as Granada won a free-kick midway inside the Sociedad half. It looked almost too far out to shoot but with the surface slippery from a bit of afternoon rain, Álvaro Vadillo decided he’d have a pop.
The Granada winger’s right-footed effort flew over the two-man wall before swinging in the air to in part deceive Remiro. The Sociedad keeper was slightly off balance as a result but was still able to get two hands on the ball, only for it slip through his grasp and into the back of the net to level the game at 1-1.
It was a fine strike but one that would ultimately have to go down as a goalkeeping error and in the space of just a few minutes Granada had managed to get a major foothold in a game that looked in danger of slipping away from them. Boosted by that, El Graná managed to end the half by pushing Sociedad back with the crowd increasingly involved.
The score though would remain level as the two teams trotted back to the dressing rooms at the interval after a lengthy period of Stoppage time following the VAR review and a bit of treatment for Oyarzabal who took a ball in the face.
The Nuevo Estadio de Los Cármenes is quite a romantic setting for a football game with the twinkling lights of houses on the roads leading up to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada visible in the distance. However it is not exactly high on options for Half-Time entertainment with even shelter from the elements not so easy to find in sections of the ground.
Perhaps in part due to the late 9:00 p.m. kick-off on a Sunday night and in part due to the lack of suitable incentives for children and families, it also feels like a bit of a throwback to the days when old terraces were almost exclusively packed out by men.
Even some of the older ones though wouldn’t have had the clearest of memories of the last time Granada were flying so high in La Liga. A 6th place finish in the 1973/74 season was the last time they truly could cheer on a team that could mix it with the best in Spain with the club having failed to finish higher than 15th in the top flight since then.
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Almost half a century on, Diego Martínez sent his side back out to try and make a little bit more history by returning to the summit and perhaps more importantly chalking up another three points towards their primary target of merely remaining in the division.
One thing that was very clear though was that Granada had not developed ideas above their station despite their stunning start to the season. Even with home advantage, they were content to let their opponents have the ball whilst maintaining the same compact defensive shape that had already managed to send the mighty Barcelona home without a point or even a goal.
As was the case in the First Half, Sociedad started brightly but were struggling to find that killer pass that might unlock the Granada door. The hosts were content to try and carve out an opening on the break as a cagier kind of game started to develop.
A flurry of substitutions didn’t help matters either and for a brief spell there seemed to be more entertainment off the pitch with one Granada fan who had come dressed as the Pope enjoying a humorous exchange with the visiting supporters.
It wasn’t until the 78th minute that the Second Half had its first clear chance. The impressive Mikel Oyarzabal finally found a bit of space to run into down the Sociedad left but his fierce strike was well kept out by Rui Silva who was having another solid game between the sticks for Granada.
The closest the home team came to a goal was substitute Darwin Machis’ volleyed effort which flew into the side netting giving the impression to some areas of the ground that El Graná had scored a wonderful winning goal.
Those cheers would soon turn to despair though and not just at the realisation that the ball had actually gone wide of the goal. In the final minute of the 90, Sociedad substitute Adnan Januzaj picked up the ball on the right hand side and slid a fine pass through to Portu, the man who has essentially taken his position in the team this season.
There was more pressure on Portu than had been the case for his first goal with two defenders in hot pursuit and his first touch was less convincing. However the 27 year old still managed to readjust in time to slot the ball past Silva and into the corner of the net before sprinting over to the delirious Sociedad fans in one corner of Los Cármenes.
Portu was substituted off moments later and he received the warm applause of the visiting supporters who were making all the noise now from the slightly makeshift looking section where they were being housed. In parts, Granada’s home feels like it has simply had small extensions added here and there in a slightly haphazard way with three small tiers on all four sides and various bits and pieces added to the corners. It’s perhaps fitting in a city where churches were simply built on top of mosques when Granada was annexed to Castile after centuries of Muslim rule.
The small visiting section looked like it might struggle to cope with the joyous Real Sociedad fans who were now bouncing up and down and the Full-Time whistle was greeted by a huge roar from the travelling Basques with neither side really threatening in the few minutes that remained after Portu’s decisive strike.
They remained behind to applaud an impressive performance from their team as the Nuevo Estadio de Los Cármenes quickly emptied elsewhere. The Granada fans would have left disappointed to have not taken something from the game having largely coped well with Sociedad’s attacked threat after some hairy moments in the opening half hour.
However in the grand scheme of things, this was still only a minor setback. With 20 points on the board from just twelve games, things would have to fall apart pretty spectacularly if the Andalusians are not to be playing top flight football again next season.
With a talented young coach, a newly found local identity and a squad of players that appears to all be pulling for the same cause, it’s very hard to see that happening. Granada aren’t going to win La Liga and they almost certainly won’t finish in the top six this season but this may only be the beginning of a long overdue renaissance of football in one of Spain’s most historic cities.