20th January 2017. By Edward Stratmann.
Although not too many column inches were dedicated towards Sevilla defender Nicolas Pareja following Jorge Sampaoli's side's sensational win over Real Madrid, the 32-year-old's performance was undoubtedly nothing short of exceptional.
In a match where much was justifiably made of Sevilla breaking Madrid's 40 game unbeaten streak and Stevan Jovetic's dramatic stoppage time winner, the players in the less glamorous defensive positions were unsurprisingly overlooked.
While this was precisely the case for Pareja, the Sevilla captain's efforts were a vital contributing factor in the exciting win. From his right sided central defensive position, the Argentine used all of his experience, leadership, composure and masterful defensive skillset to nullify his superstar opponent, the recently crowned Ballon d'Or recipient Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, who formed a front two alongside Karim Benzema, within the confines of Zinedine Zidane's 3-5-2 formation, would've relished the opportunity to get at the aging stopper, but Pareja's intelligence and positioning saw him comfortably overcome his illustrious opponent.
To start with, his ability to neutralise Ronaldo in 1v1 scenarios was essential in limiting the Portuguese's influence. Through a combination of his exemplary body positioning, constant blindside checks to remain goal side of his man and his astute capacity to read the play, this ensured Pareja possessed all the answers to whatever was thrown at him.
Moreover, the immense clarity in which he made his decisions whether to hold his position or step up and make a challenge only amplified his effectiveness. The way he responded to pressing triggers, such as when Ronaldo dropped deep with his back to goal or received with his body open diagonally, only served to make life even more frustrating for the Madrid hitman.
Despite not being as quick or agile as his adversary, Pareja's mobility is still decent enough, but it didn't really matter here, for his situational intelligence, aerial prowess and hulking strength successfully made up for any of his athletic deficiencies.
His fine relationship with his right back, Mariano, was another highlight of his display. With the pair often required to undertake marking crossovers when Ronaldo ventured out wide and Marcelo drove infield, they did so seamlessly to negate any advantage that Madrid were seeking through such interchanges.
For the former Anderlecht, Espanyol and Spartak Moscow player, who recently contemplated retirement after doing an anterior cruciate ligament in Sevilla's Europa League quarter final vs Zenit back in 2015, which kept him out of action for roughly a year, this outing served as yet another glowing testament to his mental fortitude and why he's become one of Sampaoli's trusted warriors at the back.
After the departure of Unai Emery in the summer, Pareja wasn't entirely sure he'd remain with Sevilla, but once Sampaoli observed him in action, the former Chile manager immediately recognised his class - and he's been a mainstay ever since. He even signed a new contract in August that ties him to the club till 2019, something that further illustrates what an integral member of the squad he is.
"It was a very busy summer for me," Pareja explained. "There was talk of Espanyol and other teams, but my head and my heart were in Seville. My main idea was to continue here for many years and I was able to fulfill my desire to renew with Sevilla."
Pareja, who's one of four remaining Sevilla members of the team that have won the last three consecutive Europa League titles, alongside Vitolo, Vicente Iborra and Daniel Carrico, then went on to add what an amazing influence Sampaoli's had on him, even if his high octane tactics, especially at the beginning, made things tough for him.
"Jorge gave me a lot of confidence and that to me made me feel like an important player on the field. He's restored confidence to my game. It's not easy to get back to your level so fast, but I've worked to be 100 percent as soon as possible," he insisted.
He then insightfully added this on his manager's methods: "First it cost us an awful lot, but we corrected some mistakes and the team is now balanced. This is shown by the fact that we have kept the goal to zero in more than 50% of the matches. We've now found the balance inside that attacking soccer Jorge wants."
Although he rarely grabs the headlines, there's no debating what an indispensable commodity Pareja is for Sampaoli. And his latest outstanding, all encompassing defensive masterclass suitably evidenced this.
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Nicolas Pareja: Defensive Master at Sevilla
20th January 2017. By Edward Stratmann.