Sevilla showing its strength under coach Sampaoli

Several clubs and national teams were after Jorge Sampaoli when Sevilla made the surprise announcement in June that it was hiring the Argentine-born coach.

He arrived amid high expectations and promised to keep Sevilla a contender in Spain and Europe. After an up-and-down start, Sampaoli is on his way to fulfilling his words.

The team from Spain’s southern Andalusia region is in a good position to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League. It can take the Spanish league lead on Sunday with a home win against Atletico Madrid, combined with a draw or loss by Real Madrid against Athletic Bilbao.

“We are doing very well,” Sampaoli said. “We are in a strong position in both competitions. This motivates us for what’s ahead.”

Sampaoli, who led Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015, signed with Sevilla this season after contemplating offers from across the world. Those offers kept coming even after accepting the Sevilla job, including one from Argentina’s national team about a month after Sampaoli had replaced Unai Emery. The 56-year-old Sampaoli decided to stay in Spain because “it would be irresponsible” to leave after such short period in charge.

Sampaoli failed in the first two chances he had to succeed with Sevilla, losing the Spanish Super Cup to Barcelona and the UEFA Super Cup to Real Madrid.

But things improved, and while Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico continued to attract most of the headlines with big victories, Sevilla quietly began winning important games.

It has won three of its last four games in the Spanish league and sits third in the standings after eight rounds, one point behind leaders Atletico and Madrid.

In the Champions League, Sevilla is tied with Juventus atop Group H with seven points from three matches. It drew against the Italian champions in the opener and picked up consecutive wins against Lyon and at Dinamo Zagreb.

“We have to maintain this winning mentality,” Sevilla defender Sergio Escudero said. “We have a good dynamic going and we have to maintain it. It’s important to keep winning.”

In addition to facing Atletico this weekend at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Sevilla will also host Barcelona in two weeks, as well as Juventus in the Champions League in November.

Expectations are high at Sevilla, which defeated Liverpool to win its third straight Europa League title last season, but Sampaoli warned there is still a lot to improve before Sevilla can get closer to the top three teams in Spain.

“We will have difficulties competing against the bigger teams unless we improve when we have chances to score,” he said. “It’s been difficult to score. If we are not decisive, we will struggle against the better teams.”

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