BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Míchel Sánchez soaked up the applause after his Girona team, the surprise leader of the Spanish league, won again on Saturday.
This time, however, the cheers came from Rayo Vallecano fans following Girona’s 2-1 comeback win.
Míchel played most of his career as a midfielder for Rayo, and he returned as a coach for the modest Madrid-based club. The Rayo faithful greeted him with signs bearing his name and chants of “Míchel! Míchel!”
“Girona’s fans are my fans now, but what I have felt today from the fans of Rayo is incredible,” the 48-year-old coach said. “This is one of the most beautiful days I have had (in soccer). They showed me their warmth as a player and coach, and what they did for me today was special.”
Míchel, who goes by his first name in Spain, returned to coach Rayo for two seasons before eventually making it to northeast Catalonia to take over at Girona in 2021.
Now, he has turned Girona into one of the sensations of European soccer.
Girona clicked once again at Vallecas Stadium. Ukraine striker Artem Dovbyk was set up by countryman Viktor Tsyhankov in the 42nd minute for his team-high seventh goal of the season. That canceled out Álvaro García’s sixth-minute opener for Rayo.
Dovbyk used his big frame to brush off his marker and turn while receiving a squared pass from Tsyhankov before he fired home from the center of the box.
The two Ukrainians played a part in Sávio’s go-ahead goal in the 65th as well. After Daley Blind recovered the ball, Tsyhankov again found Dovbyk in the area. Goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski did well to get his leg on Dovbyk’s shot, but Sávio was there to put in the rebound.
Also, sixth-place Real Sociedad scored twice in stoppage time to win 3-1 at last-place Almeria, which remained winless.
Girona, which two seasons ago was in the second division, is partly controlled by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership even though it has one of the lowest payrolls in the league of just 51 million euros ($54 million).
The numbers are impressive for the Catalan team that is in only its fourth season in the top flight in club history. It has 11 wins in 13 rounds, including six wins in seven road games, and has five come-from-behind victories. Its only loss came at home to Madrid in September. It leads the league with 31 goals scored.
García said that his team can now aspire to bigger things than merely avoiding a relegation battle, which was its main aim in previous seasons.
“We have bigger goals now. We can dream,” García said. “We deserve to be where we are. We have a very tight group. We are like a family. We have this connection on the field that I am not sure where it comes from, but it is there.”
Rayo fell to 10th place.
NO JUDE, NO PROBLEM
For a second straight game, Madrid had no problem scoring while Jude Bellingham nursed a hurt shoulder.
Bellingham, who leads the league with 10 goals and has scored 13 overall for his new club, was in the stands at the Santiago Bernabeu after he had remained on the bench for Madrid’s 3-0 win at Braga in the Champions League earlier this week.
Right back Dani Carvajal put Madrid ahead just three minutes after kickoff when he volleyed a shot from outside the area.
Hugo Duro had three good chances to pull Valencia level. But Andriy Lunin, who started in the place of the injured Kepa Arrizabalaga, saved Duro’s first two shots before the striker failed when trying to head in a cross that reached right in front of the goal.
Moments later Vinícius was celebrating his first goal in the 42nd after he dove and used his chest to turn in a low bouncing cross from Rodrygo.
The Brazil winger added a second goal in the 49th when he blasted in a right-footed shot from outside the area.
A minute later Rodrygo made it four after intercepting a poor pass by goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili. He then added a fifth in the 84th.
Duro got his goal for Valencia late.
LEAVING IT LATE
Almeria was heading for a draw against Sociedad until a disastrous stoppage time. Carlos Fernández converted a penalty to make it 2-1 after a video review led to the referee penalizing Sergio Akieme for a handball in the box. Martín Zubimendi then added a third goal.
AP soccer: apnews.com/hub/soccer
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press