Granada keep upsetting odds in Europa League: How Spain's little club that could shocked Napoli

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Diego Martinez's daughter was asleep when her dad made history at the home of Diego Maradona. She would have to wait until the morning to be told what he and his players had done, how it went, the whole heroic story: how every time they fell, they got up again and how by the end of it they were still standing somehow. Not just standing: advancing. How in their first ever season in Europe, Granada eliminated Napoli to reach the last 16 of the Europa League, where they will play Norwegian side Molde.

"A brutal exercise in survival," Martinez called it. No one in Europe has played more games than Granada this season and in Italy bodies broke down before their eyes. The first man fell in the warm-up, Darwin Machis unable to start the game. The second fell soon after, Maxime Gonalons unable to go on. Then the third, Carlos Neva departing in tears. Twice they were momentarily down to ten. And then came the fourth man down, German Sanchez making way after 55 minutes.

It wasn't just that. The men who came on weren't supposed to play: Roberto Soldado, Jesus Vallejo and Yangel Herrera weren't really fit. They had decided not to risk Herrera when Gonalons made way; when German did, they had no real choice. Vallejo hadn't even been training with his teammates in the build-up to the game but joined them during it. And Luis Milla and Luis Suarez -- both vital, both injured -- were not included in the squad.

Oh, and they had trailed after just three minutes.

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"It was like something out of Hitchcock film," Martinez told Spanish radio afterwards. "Pull back the shower curtain and ..."

But Angel Montoro scored the header that made history, levelling the score and leaving Napoli needing four goals, and then Granada had resisted. It wasn't always pretty -- Gennaro Gattuso complained that "if an Italian team behaved like they did, they next day it would be front page all over Europe" -- and goalkeeper Rui Silva had to rescue his team too, but despite facing 22 shots they conceded just one more goal, going through 3-2 on aggregate.

"In terms of bad luck, I don't think I've ever seen a game where four players have had to go off," Montoro said. It was a defeat but Granada had won the tie and, asked how it tasted, he replied: "delicious."

Writing in the city's newspaper Ideal, Rafael Lamelas witnessed a "heavenly Granada, resisting endless adversity to reach Eden ... the anguish seemed infinite, but at last the referee brought the battle to a close and liberated Granada's spent heroes. If you don't believe that, watch the last-16 draw [Friday]. This team has earned an eternal ovation, valiantly defying Jupiter, Maradona and whoever else stands before them."

Back at the team hotel, tension easing now, Martinez could laugh: "It's better this way."

It is also what they do; what he does, and what all of them do. Nothing's easy, and nor should it be. Granada have never won anything in 89 years. They were in the second division two years ago, in Spain's semi-professional, regionalised segunda division b with its (then) 80 teams 11 years ago, and in the 360-team tercera division as recently as 2006. Now look at them.

When Martinez took over at Granada in 2018, they were in the second division and he was only 37. A Galician who had graduated in sports science at Granada University, he had been working towards this, and more, for almost two decades, getting his first job in tercera division at 25. He had been C-team, B-team and youth-team coach as well as Unai Emery's assistant at Sevilla FC -- it is easy to imagine the next step on his career path being a return to the Sanchez Pizjuan -- and took Osasuna to within a point of the playoffs for promotion to the first division.

He joined a club that was restructuring after relegation and crisis. They had gone down at the end of a season in which they'd been through too many players and too many managers, a team -- if that was the word, and it wasn't really -- without an identity or anything that could really be defined as a collective purpose. The club was too big, they admit: too many of the resources had been focused on areas outside of football.

Martinez was part of a culture shift and in his first season with Granada he brought them up to the first division. In his first season in the top flight, he led them to within a late Yuri Berchiche goal from the Copa del Rey final. He also took them to European football for the first time in their history.

And that's where it got really difficult. Their budget is a tenth the size of Real Madrid's. Coronavirus left them without fans and income. There were concerns they might not be able to deal with three competitions: they had just seen Espanyol play Europa League football and get relegated. They hadn't expected to qualify for European football, and they might not be ready. In fact, they hadn't qualified for European football, not yet. They would have to get through three preliminary rounds still.

"It came sooner than we imagined; we had to 'run,'" admits Antonio Fernandez Monterrubio, the director general. "Only a couple of players had European experience. European football made us change the original idea and seek to deepen the squad." But what if they did not make it? That, Monterrubio admits, "was a real risk, financially."

They sought variety, offering Martinez different options, without being assured of getting through. They might have ended up with a squad that was too big, difficult to manage. As it turns out, at times the squad has appeared maybe even too small, despite making three of the summer's outstanding signings: Suarez, Milla and Jorge Molina. Against Malmo, Granada got through.

The difficulties didn't end there, not least because they got through. Because they got through in the Copa del Rey too. There have been injuries -- more than 20 of them now -- and a COVID outbreak that saw them briefly field an illegible lineup against Real Sociedad, their pleas to postpone the game rejected by the league. "A lot of our players are not used to playing two games a week," Soldado admitted just before Christmas. There have also been more games than anyone else in Europe:

  • Twenty-four in the league.

  • Five in the cup, finally knocked out when Barcelona scored two in the last two minutes to take it into extra-time. And even then they fought back to equalise again.

  • Eight in the Europa League.

  • And three European qualifiers, including trips to Albania and Georgia.

On Thursday night, at the place where Maradona was legend, they guaranteed there will be at least two more in Europe alone, the journey continuing. "You saw the spirit this team has; it never surrenders and always believes," Antonio Puertas said. "We suffered but we always compete," Molina added.

He and Soldado, 38 and 35 respectively, are a brilliant example of that. Watching them at Segunda B Navalcarnero recently was the perfect illustration. Two players with long careers, who have played at better clubs than this -- in theory -- and made more money than they do now, facing a tiny team in a small ground on an astroturf pitch, playing as if it was Madrid or Barcelona, battling for every ball, crashing into every challenge.

Martinez says that after that game Molina's back was "screwed"; three days later he was playing again. He also says that one day Soldado was clocked at 33.7km, joking that the measurement must be wrong. Enthusiasm goes a long way.

"I don't think I have ever enjoyed football as much as I do now," Soldado says. "And I think more of the team now than I ever did before. We're a humble club but a team with the ambition to be big, despite being small. I've been at clubs where I have won games because of the talent there is; here I win games because of the commitment there is, and you can't buy that."

But you can build it. "Granada have soul," Martinez says, and that more than anything else is what he wants, what he has sought to nurture. Methodical, adaptable and charismatic, the youngest coach in the first division, he has built a tactically rich team -- "chameleonic," as they say at the club. Above all, he has built an environment in which his players perform, where the demands are intense but where there's a collective enthusiasm, a joy in playing, which players insist is genuinely different. One that is paying off spectacularly.

"He's close to the squad, that's the thing that most stands out. We understand him perfectly," Soldado says of Martinez. "And one of the best things about him is that he listens: he likes us to tell him how we feel about things, which makes him better. He makes us all better players. He has a great career ahead of him."

"He's the perfect coach for this club, he has the perfect team for what he wants. I could be here all night talking about him," Montoro said after knocking out Napoli, but it was already late and they were empty now. Another job done, it was time for them to sleep too.

In an interview with Ideal not long ago, Martinez admitted that he sometimes feels like he tells his daughter: "I'm your father. Diego Martinez, Granada manager, but also your father." Her dad, the man who's making history even if this time she wasn't awake to see it.