“Remember it? Do I?!” Roberto Soldado says and then he starts laughing. The last time he played Manchester United was New Year’s Day 2014 and the first thing that comes to his mind is the sorry sight of himself sitting alone the night before, stuffing grapes into his mouth as fast as possible. “We were playing on the first at midday so I said to my wife: ‘We’ll be going up to Manchester on 31st. Go to Spain, be with the family, don’t stay here on your own.’ She went and then the manager said we’d travel that morning so we could spend new year with our families …”
Soldado puts his head in hands and cracks up again. He looks at the screen. “I ended up doing a video call, like this one. Me and the family eating grapes on each chime of midnight [as Spanish tradition dictates]. Them in Spain, me on my own in London. A disaster. A bit sad, really.” There’s a grin. “But it was worth it: the next day we won at Old Trafford.”
More than six years on Soldado, who turns 36 the day after the Europa League final, faces United again. “If you’d told me I’d next meet them again after so long and in Europe, bloody hell, no way I would have believed it. Now we just have to enjoy it,” the Granada striker says. Although he has beaten United, none of his teammates have faced them and few ever expected to, either. As for him, he didn’t think he would still be playing, certainly not like this.
“Before coming to Granada, I wasn’t right mentally,” he says. “That last year in Turkey I spoke to my wife about retiring. Now, I’m enjoying it so much. I appreciate football more. Before I was too competitive, demanding. You need a limit. We talked about the pressure I put on myself at Tottenham; if I was there now, I’d handle it differently, calmer. I’m sure I’d perform better. With experience, you realise it doesn’t help but back then I would put my ego above the team. Not now. I found a great club with great staff and great teammates.”
Just not great expectations. “I only came to fight relegation,” Soldado says, smiling. Instead, led by Diego Martínez, Granada were a revelation. “Survival was the target. Now we’re playing a European quarter-final and against Manchester United. No big deal, eh.”
The difference between the clubs is huge, United’s budget nine times bigger. Granada have never previously been in Europe or won anything. Their record signing is Luis Suárez but it’s not that Luis Suárez: this Suárez cost €6m. Only four of them had played European football before and Soldado, whose first European goal was a header from David Beckham’s cross almost 16 years ago, didn’t expect to again. Nor did Jorge Molina, who will be 39 this month.
“When Jorge signed, I was delighted not to be the oldest any more,” Soldado jokes. “I’ve told them about Old Trafford and Napoli. About players too. They talk about Ronaldinho. I say: ‘I played against Ronaldinho’, and they look at me: ‘What?! What do you mean, Ronaldinho?!’ I enjoy that. It’s the memories you take with you and it’s nice to share those with them.”
Nicer still to make memories together, on an adventure no one anticipated, a group growing better and closer by the day. “There are players who first played in primera last season aged 27, 28. Now you see them competing against big clubs and think: ‘Bloody hell, it’s like they’ve been here their whole lives,’” Soldado says. “That spirit, that enthusiasm you have as a kid, drives us. That’s why we’ve got this far, why we have this unbelievable challenge against Manchester United. And I’m convinced we’ll compete.”
They always do, the old men an example. If there is an image of Granada and the role played by Soldado and Molina, maybe it was in Navalcarnero in January: a cold Thursday night, an synthetic pitch, a semi-professional opponent, and two men who have been in better places still crashing into challenges.
That’s one image, but there are more. It’s not just that Granada have got this far; it’s that, hit by an injury crisis and coronavirus, they’re still standing at all. They had only five first-team players at Real Sociedad and went to Napoli with injuries in double figures, watched one man pull out in the warm-up and three more withdraw during the game but still came through. Both times Soldado played when he shouldn’t have.
“I was in the basement, isolated from my family for 20 days,” he recalls. “I finally tested negative on the Thursday, came here on Friday to do some gym work and on Saturday they told me I had to travel to play Real Sociedad the next day to avoid fielding an ineligible team and getting punished. Without doing all the normal checks. ‘Sign this form, travel, get on the pitch, hang in there as long as you can.’ For the good of the team, I did it. But I took a risk…”
He laughs again. “Put it this way, my mum gave me a clip round the ear.”
“We’ve played 46 games which is a barbaridad, incredible. There have been lots of injuries, illness, bans, players not used to so many matches. We haven’t been able to train as we would like, we have to measure the loads carefully. But everyone contributes: if we can only play 10 minutes, we tell the manager because that can help a teammate, contribute to avoiding more injuries. Against Molde we had only 12 players. In Napoli some shouldn’t have been in the squad, let alone the pitch. But there were no more players and we’re a team.
“After getting through Napoli, one of the doctors was crying. All that responsibility, so many injuries, four players pulling out, others going on unfit, and we made it. You see emotion throughout your career, but that was shared, special: there’s a chemistry that’s hard to achieve and means you enjoy it more. The message was: ‘Don’t worry, everyone does their bit, we’ll get through.’ That’s what brought us here – which was unthinkable for us.
“And this international break has been glorious, good for us. Rest a bit and train hard: the ‘petrol’ we’re putting into our legs for these last two months.”
If that helps, being perhaps least “Spanish” of the Spanish teams might too. Granada watched United tear Real Sociedad apart, learned, and are built for different things. Lots of different things. Their manager calls them “chameleonic”. “We’re not Villarreal, Madrid, Barcelona, Real Sociedad,” Soldado says. “If we played like them, we’d lose out. We have a variety of systems – 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-3 – depending on the opponents. We’ll try to ensure United aren’t comfortable.”
Unlike Real Sociedad, Granada will play the home leg at home, which Soldado calls a relief. “It’s a journey less in a season with so many and it’s our ground with our lockers, our materials, our routine, our hotel,” he explains. “Unconsciously, you have reference points.”
Not that it will be the way it should be, Granada’s biggest night unfolding in an empty Los Cármenes. So, football without fans?
“Shit,” Soldado shoots back.
“It’s football but not football: you don’t live it the same way. In the league, you don’t even have those moments in the dressing room, all together, music going, looking each other in the eye. Or the physio’s room, where teams are made. That’s the essence of football and it’s gone. We’re separated. The year and a half I’ve spent in Granada we’ve done so much but, without fans, it feels like we haven’t done so much. It’s historic and yet …
“You know what fans think, how happy they are at what we’re doing, because you read it. But what I like is to score a goal and see people’s faces. That’s what makes your hairs stand on end, what touches you, gives you the energy to compete.”
Is returning to Old Trafford without fans a bit ‘so what’, then? “No, Old Trafford is the leche, the business. But I tell you, I’d rather be there with 80,000 people.
“It’s an honour for us. It’s an honour to be in this competition. Europe is another dimension, everyone is watching – especially in a quarter-final against the team we’re playing. A historic club, known around the world. It’s historic for our city and our club. We might be the small team, ‘unknown’, but we have a big club’s ambition: that’s the mentality we need to knock out United. Our pressure is to leave everything out there. If that’s enough, brilliant. If not, fine, being here is a huge achievement. But there’s no doubt: the aim is to win.”
Just like New Year’s Day 2014.