Into the Calderón: Considering where this club was just three years ago, how incredible has this season been?
Colin Millar: Betis are a club with a reputation for chaotic mismanagement and performing well below their potential. Nonetheless, the 2014 relegation was a real low point and despite the subsequent promotion, the first two seasons back in the top flight were less than impressive. Relegation was never a major threat but recruitment and coaching were nowhere near the standard to qualify for a European place. The return of vice president Lorenzo Serra Ferrer and Quique Setién’s appointment have allowed the club to make genuine progress, even if a top five spot is exceeding initial expectations.
ItC: Is Betis’ uptick in form really all down to Marc Bartra’s addition, or has it been a combination of factors?
CM: Since Bartra has come to the club, Betis have more points than any other side in LaLiga. It was a vital addition, made even more important with Zouhair Feddal’s season-ending injury. Playing out from the back is fundamental to Setién’s game-plan but it also brings a high element of risk, but Bartra fits the system perfectly. The introduction of youth team full-back Junior Firpo and upturn in form of Aissa Mandi have also helped transform a chaotic defence into a fully-functioning one.
ItC: From Fabián to Junior to Loren Morón, what has struck you about how Quique Setién has utilized his academy?
CM: This has been the most underplayed aspect of Setién’s management to date. The introduction of all three players, particularly Junior and Morón, came as somewhat of a surprise. The players whom they effectively replaced — Riza Durmisi and Sergio Leon — were two of the side’s top performers, and their removal from the side was not due to a lack of form. The coaching staff identified which players were perfect for the system, and such introductions have helped rejuvenate the side and bring further competition for places.
ItC: Joaquín. He just keeps getting it done. Even at 36 going on 37, can he form an important part of a Europa League side?
CM: Joaquín is the football equivalent of Benjamin Button (as recognised by the Betis social media team!) as he appears to grow younger with each passing season. Not only is his technique and understanding of the game better than ever, but his fitness levels and stamina are, at his age, astonishing. Barring injury problems, he looks to have at least two more seasons at the top level left in him.
ItC: How do you see this team strengthening over the summer as they prepare for the UEL?
CM: Reports suggest deals have all been done for Espanyol goalkeeper Pau López, winger Sergio Canales from Real Sociedad and Eibar’s Takashi Inui — which would each represent good business. For the first summer in a long time, there is no need for a major overhaul. Maintaining Fabián Ruiz will be vital (but likely, after he signed a new contract earlier this season) while Dani Ceballos returning from Real Madrid on a temporary basis would provide the icing on the cake!
ItC: Will Betis become the first side since January to score at A Stadium Called Wanda?
CM: Atlético’s home form is so strong, while Betis are now much more functional than their chaotic matches earlier in the campaign. Everything points to it being a low-scoring affair, but with the hosts having one eye on the Europa League, a positive away result is certainly not out of the question.