- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

MADRID (AP) - Sevilla’s ambitious hopes of becoming a La Liga contender are beginning to materialize.

With an inspired team not afraid of confronting the powerhouses, Sevilla has shown it’s ready to take the next step and seriously challenge Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid.

One game before the halfway mark in the Spanish league, the squad revitalized by coach Jorge Sampaoli is only a point behind leader Madrid, a team it defeated in impressive fashion on Sunday.

The come-from-behind 2-1 win came thanks to another gritty performance by Sampaoli’s team, which has mixed high-intensity defense and a fast-paced attack to impose its style against opponents, no matter how strong they are.

“A victory in a game like this allows us to remain optimistic and believe that this team can continue this run if we maintain this same determination,” Sampaoli said. “Time will tell if we can succeed.”

Sevilla’s win halted Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sevilla had already come close to a victory midweek in the Copa del Rey, but it conceded two late goals in a 3-3 draw that led to its elimination. It lost the first leg the week before in Madrid 3-0.

“We had three difficult matches against Real Madrid and we were superior in two of them,” Sampaoli said. “We were able to beat a team that was unbeaten.”

Sevilla this season also defeated Atletico 1-0, drew at fifth-place Villarreal 0-0, and routed sixth-place Real Sociedad 4-0. It lost 2-1 to Barcelona in an encouraging display.

It has won six of its last seven league games, including four in a row. In front of its diehard fans at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Sevilla has won eight of its nine games.

It lost the European Super Cup title to Madrid in extra time last year, and this season advanced to the knockout stages of the Champions League, where it will face Leicester City in the Round of 16.

Sevilla has thrived in the lower-tiered Europa League, winning three straight titles, but its last Spanish league trophy was in 1946. The last time it finished second was in 1957.

It hasn’t had this much success in the league since 2007, when a squad that included Dani Alves and Frederic Kanoute fought for the title and eventually finished third behind Barcelona and champion Real Madrid. Sevilla led the competition after 18 matches that season, but with 37 points, two less than it has now.

Sevilla, the Copa del Rey winner in 2007 and 2010, also finished third in the league in 2009.

While Atletico Madrid made its way to the top thanks to the stout defense of coach Diego Simeone, Sampaoli’s Sevilla has been balancing a competitive defense with an effective offense led by players such as Samir Nasri, Victor “Vitolo” Machin, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Luciano Vietto.

It’s the first time since the winning campaign of 1956-57 that Sevilla has scored 38 goals in its first 18 league matches. Only Barcelona (47) and Madrid (46) have scored more this season.

“This team likes to play, it likes to attack,” said Stevan Jovetic, who scored the injury-time winner against Madrid on Sunday. “There is still a long way to go and we will be fighting against some top teams, but we will keep doing our thing and see where we can end up.”

Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who arrived with high expectations this season, has made a mark by successfully rotating players. Despite not having the same budget as Madrid or Barcelona, he has been able to make the most out of the squad put together by renowned sports director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez.

But despite the recent success and all the hype surrounding Sevilla, president Jose Castro is trying to keep the club grounded.

“We are excited, we are one point behind Madrid, and one ahead of Barcelona,” Castro said. “We will try to win it all, but the goal is to secure a spot in the Champions (League). The Spanish league is for other teams with a bigger budget.”

Sevilla’s next game is at last-place Osasuna on Sunday.

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni

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