It took José Antonio Reyes 11 months and 11 seconds to win them back and when the moment came he did so in style and on the perfect stage. This was the Reyes they once knew and loved. The Seville derby, the most passionate in Spain, was 11 seconds old when the ball reached him. No one else on his team had even touched it yet. Betis had taken the centre: one pass, two, three passes, four, five, and back it went to the goalkeeper, Adrián. He hit it straight to Reyes, sprinting forward. 00.11 said the clock. One touch to control and … wallop!
As 12 seconds went up so did the Sánchez Pizjuán. Reyes had just scored the fifth fastest goal in the history of the Spanish league. It was the fastest goal ever in a Seville derby, overtaking the previous record of 35 seconds held by Pepe Mel, the man on the opposition bench on Sunday night.
The ball flew into the top corner in front of Sevilla's fans, where the Biris were back. A banner said: "Sorry for the delay." In protest, they had not attended games so far this season but they were not going to miss this. Much of the rest of Spain had. In fact, they missed more, thanks to the geniuses at the LFP and the TV companies who apparently don't know how long a game of football actually lasts. Granada-Atlético kicked off at 7.45, Sevilla at 9.30. When the game in Granada finished they switched grounds to see Alvaro Negredo shoot just wide. It would have been Sevilla's third and the game was only in the seventh minute.
Luckily, there was even more to come. Sevilla were flying forward and Betis could hardly breathe. Sevilla were 1-0 up after 12 seconds, 2-0 up after four minutes through Fazio, 3-0 up after 33, Reyes again, and 4-0 up before half-time, Fazio getting his second. Betis got one back in the second half through Rubén Castro, a goal that was brilliantly taken but swiftly forgotten. Ivan Rakitic added the fifth in the last minute. A goal in the first minute and the 91st bookended a manita, so symbolic in Spanish football. It was the first time Sevilla had scored five against their city rivals since January 1943.
No one could quite believe it. Betis started the match in a Champions League position, Sevilla came into it with doubts increasing by the day: their impressive start to the season had given way to only one win in six, including defeats against Celta, Zaragoza and Athletic, all teams sitting in the bottom half of the table on Monday morning. Betis too came into it off the back of a defeat but it was their first in five. They had also won their last two trips to the Pizjuán.
Betis offered up the least convincing defence since James Murdoch could not recall that conversation or remember that email. Virtually every goal was a gift, from weak tackles to perfect assists for the wrong player, to a goalkeeper who, one Spanish football historian noted, seeking out the worst possible definition he could find, "seemed English". There has been not too much wrong with Adrián's performances this season but on Sunday night, noted La Liga commentator Pete Jenson, he was like the goalie in Gregory's Girl. This morning columnist Tito González decided he could only refer to Betis's "footballers" in speech marks. "It was a nightmare," said Pepe Mel.
All of which was true. But Sevilla were irresistible; screeching around, first to every ball, running at a terrified defence. "I have never in my life seen anything like it," said the Sevilla manager, Míchel, who played in arguably the most successful Madrid team of all time, domestically at least. "No team of mine, either as a player or coach, has produced a first half as complete as that. I have never seen anything like it. Not even when I was a kid."
At the heart of it was Reyes. Direct, skilful, inventive, decisive with almost every touch. The player he had been before. "Just like old times," remarked AS, "Magisterial, a superclase." He scored the first and the third and ran Betis to bits. He was withdrawn on 65 minutes to a huge ovation. "This was the dream derby," Reyes said. "He produced a great performance," added Míchel.
The Sevilla coach refused to reveal what he whispered in Reyes's ear when he took him off but he would have been entitled to say something along the lines of: can we play you every week? As the headline in Marca cheered: "Reyes's night." As the paper noted inside: "The Pizjuán wants to see the real Reyes more than once a year."
The day Reyes left Seville for the first time, crowds gathered at the Sanchez Pizjuán. Some cried and some shouted abuse at José María Del Nido, the president who let him go: €24m was no compensation for losing the greatest talent Sevilla had produced in years. In the back of the car, pulling out and speeding towards the airport, fans thumping palms on the side, a tear went down Reyes's cheek. He didn't want to go. It was January 2004 and he was 21 years old. As the doors of the plane opened at the other end and he walked down the steps on to the runway in London, he let out a cry that, in that impenetrable, unusual andaluz accent of his, felt like a premonition of what lay ahead: Ozú, que frio!
Bloody hell, it's freezing!
When Reyes returned to Sevilla almost exactly eight years later in January this year, arriving via Arsenal, Benfica, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, they were out again. In his absence they had built the greatest Seville side in history but those days seemed to be slipping away and Reyes remained one of them, a hero and a hope. This time they gathered at Santa Justa train station, a five-minute walk from the Pizjuán, ready to welcome him back. He wore a huge smile and they could not hide their excitement. Eleven months on, it had gone. Rumours abound that Reyes could be packing his bags again. There was talk of Turkey but they didn't care where he went just so long as he went. This time, there would be few tears, just regret. It simply hadn't worked. And nor, it seemed, had he.
When things did not go well for Reyes in London, it made sense to sevillanos and sevillistas. There is a photo of Reyes from his birthday, aged 10 or 12. In it he has long hair, a big smile and a huge birthday cake. He also wears a Real Betis shirt. His dad, a talented player who never quite made it, supports Betis, but having joined Sevilla at the age of 10, José Antonio quickly became a symbol for Sevilla. With his first pay packet he bought his parents a house. A Sevilla shield was built into the bottom of the swimming pool. Arsenal could never be his home and nor could London.
Born just outside Seville, when Reyes left it just never felt right, even when he played well – and one of the things that is forgotten abuot Reyes is that he did play well at Highbury, at least to start with. As you opened the front door to his house in Cockfosters, the Christ of the Great Power looked at you from the other wall. In the living room, a huge TV tuned to Andalucían TV. A Sevilla keyring on the hook. A jamón on a stand in the kitchen. The heating on full blast. But it did not help. For Reyes, London was dark and depressing. Caught out by an impersonator pretending to be Emilio Butragueño on the radio, Reyes's mother admitted that she would live in a "shack" if it meant coming back to Spain.
Real Madrid eventually did bring him back. And he won the league. Yet somehow the magic had gone. Real Madrid, Benfica, Atlético Madrid ... almost €50m in transfer fees.
There were good moments. In fact, on one level he has had a hugely successful career. He won a league title with Madrid, scoring twice on the final day to clinch it. He won the Premier League and the FA Cup. He won the Europa League twice; in the first of those he was fundamental, Quique Sánchez Flores, the nephew of the famous flamenco singer Lola Flores, proving one of the few coaches to get the best out of him with any regularity. There was also a League Cup in Portugal and he reached a Copa del Rey final – against his former team. But it wasn't quite the same.
At one point, Atlético's fans even chanted for him to die and although they soon changed their tune the frustration never quite went away. One manager admitted that he was an "enigma". Instantly likeable, there is no pretence about him; there is instead a kind of warm simplicity. But he didn't always appear dedicated; he is laid-back and he isn't driven like some players. He just likes football. And fast cars. He became food for gossip TV channels. For Sevilla's fans there seemed a simple solution: bring him home.
Sevilla did, signing him for €4m in January. It seemed like the perfect solution for everyone but it still didn't really happen. Last season he scored just one goal – the irrelevant fourth in a 5-2 win. This season, patience had worn thin. Although he said he was determined to win the fans over and had lost seven kilos, before Sunday night he had started just two games this year, against Getafe and Granada. He didn't start against Madrid or Barcelona. He had scored no goals and had almost no impact. Michel had not just left him on the bench but in the stands. Fans had even whistled him. Rumours started about a winter move. Fenerbache were waiting and there was even talk of China. It sounded like a disaster for him.
But this weekend the game came round and Míchel put him back in the team, 11 months later. Eleven seconds in, the ball dropped to his feet and for one brief, ecstatic moment Reyes was back home.
• After seven minutes, Deportivo lost one centre-back. After fourteen, they lost another. Riki missed a penalty. And they had their goalkeeper sent off, after all their chances had been made. Leaving Alex Bergantinos to have to go in goal for twenty minutes. In the end, he only let in one but Deportivo, the club that have always boasted of having a professional president but whose financial crisis has been laid bare over the last fortnight and whose squad have gone unpaid as they head towards administration, were defeated 2-0 to slipped into the relegation zone.
• Benzema: woof! Athletic Bilbao: whimper.
• "If we had had Messi we would have won this game," said Zaragoza coach Manolo Jimenez after his side played pretty well but were defeated 3-1 at the Camp Nou. He got two more and now has 17 league goals after just 12 games. Ronaldo, who didn't score in Madrid's 5-1 win over Athletic, is on 12. And Falcao is on 10. He didn't score. Again. In fact, he missed a few chances in Atléti's 1-0 win in Granada.
• Espanyol: robbed. Even Valencia manager Mauricio Pellegrino admitted that his side were fortunate to win at Mestalla while Soldado said: "I understand why Espanyol's players reacted as they did." "We're going to have to make a formal complaint," insisted Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino. "The referees can't take everything so lightly thinking 'I'll send off two, I'll give a penalty, and no one will care because [it's only Espanyol and] on Tuesday it will be forgotten."
• On Monday night it is Real Sociedad-Rayo. "They give us terrible kick off times," complained Rayo manager Paco Jémez. As for their opponents Real Sociedad, they have been given the last game of week 12 and the first of week 22, Monday followed by Friday. The LFP's master plan to screw everything continues apace.
Results: Osasuna 0-0 Málaga, Valencia 2-1 Espanyol, Barcelona 3-1 Zaragoza, Real Madrid 5-1 Athletic, Deportivo 0-2 Levante, Celta 1-1 Mallorca, Getafe 2-1 Valladolid, Granada 0-1 Atlético, Sevilla 5-1 Betis, Monday night: Real Sociedad-Rayo.