Misfiring Betis must jump start attack in Seville derby

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Real Betis entered this season with high hopes after building on a squad that deployed one of the most attractive attacks in the Spanish league.

But the team has zero goals and only one point from two matches before it faces a derby on Sunday against a Sevilla side that is eager to restore its status as the top team in the city.

“The team is keeping calm,” Betis goalkeeper Pau Lopez said this week. “In the preseason our shots went in and now scoring is proving more difficult. It is a question of a bad streak and we hope to end it this week.”

A win would jump start Betis’ bid to challenge for a fourth-place finish. With Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid favored to again divvy up the top three spots, Betis should be able to compete with Spain’s other clubs to displace Valencia from the last Champions League berth.

If, that is, it can duplicate, and improve, upon last season.

Betis coach Enrique Setien, who had impressed by making Las Palmas competitive three seasons ago, joined the club last year and wasted no time in installing a three-man defense and designing one of the Spanish league’s most attractive attacks.

Betis went on win 18 league matches, its highest total since the 1996-97 season, which was good enough to earn a Europa League spot with a sixth-place finish — its best since 2005 and the first time in five years it had finished ahead of Sevilla.

Those victories included a 1-0 win at Real Madrid and 5-3 victory at Sevilla that will be cherished by Betis’ green-and-white clad fans for years to come.

And the club seemed set for even bigger things after spending big this offseason.

The team signed Portugal midfielder William Carvalho from Sporting Lisbon in a transfer that, including variables, could reach 20 million euros ($23.4 million). That makes him the Andalusian club’s second most expensive transfer ever after it spent the equivalent of 30 million euros in Spanish pesetas for Denilson in 1998.

Sports director Lorenzo Serra also signed attacking midfielder Sergio Canales from Real Sociedad, Japan forward Takashi Inui from Eibar, defender Sidnei from Deportivo La Coruna and Lopez from Espanyol.

Serra is reported to be trying to add midfielder Rafinha on loan from Barcelona before the transfer window closes on Friday.

The club also kept former Barcelona defender Marc Bartra, former Manchester City midfielder Javi Garcia, Mexico forward Andres Guardado and wingback Junior Firpo.

But, so far, there has only been frustration after Betis was stunned 3-0 by a modest Levante side at home. It then went scoreless for a second match after being held 0-0 at Alaves last weekend.

While acknowledging that his team is misfiring, Setien tried to cast a positive light on his team’s overall form before playing Sevilla.

“It’s true that it’s a derby against our most important rival, but the same points are at stake,” Setien said. “I think the team is on the right path. What we are lacking is to finish off our opportunities … even though we are getting the chances.”

The main problem facing Betis is that while it has added midfield command in Carvalho, speed in Inui and creativity in Canales, it has been missing three of its best attacking players from last season.

Joaquin Sanchez, who had an excellent campaign last year at 37 years old, has been sidelined by an unspecified injury and hopes to be ready to debut this season against Sevilla.

Striker Tonny Sanabria scored eight goals for Betis in the first half of last season before a right knee injury sidelined him. He is now trying to recover his top form.

And Napoli paid 30 million euros to trigger the buyout clause to pry away young forward Fabian Ruiz.

More worrying is the situation of Sergio Leon, who led the team with 11 goals in the league last season. The forward watched the loss to Levante from the bench and Setien dropped him from the squad at Alaves for reasons that are still unclear.

It may be that Setien wants to rotate his attacking players and therefore opted to play striker Lorenzo Moron over Leon. But with the transfer market still open, the possibility that Leon will be sold cannot be ruled out.