Sporting Gijón haven’t got a prayer, but they might just have a little hope at last.
The miracle arrived in the week they stopped asking for it – and the week they needed it most. The week Granada and Osasuna needed it, too. “Resurrection Sunday”, one headline called it, and it was huge: a match that felt like all their fates hung on it, even with 17 weeks still to go. “We have to win, come what may; we can’t afford another defeat,” the Sporting coach Joan Ferrer, ‘Rubi’, said. “Salvation will depend largely on what we do at Butarque; it’s very important to win,” the Leganés coach Asier Garitano said. As for Father Fernando Fueyo, he didn’t say anything.
Fueyo is 80 years old and he is the parish priest of San Nicolás de Bari in Gijón. He is also the chaplain at Sporting. On Friday afternoon, he arrived at Mareo, the club’s training ground, to wave off the team as they boarded the bus bound for Madrid, where they would be facing Leganés, but he wasn’t there at Butarque the following day. For 20 years, he has gathered them together in the dressing room just before every match, and recited the Lord’s Prayer. On Sunday, for the first time in two decades, he didn’t. Rubi had decided that he didn’t want the distraction: in those final minutes, it should be just players, coaching staff and the game ahead.
It was the second significant change Rubi had introduced. The first had been to switch benches: 100 years later, Sporting’s manager would walk out at Molinón and turn right. Rubi insisted that it wasn’t a ban or a rejection – “it’s not that Father is not allowed in, it’s that no one is,” he said – and nor is he an especially superstitious man. There was logic to the decision, just as there was an explanation for swapping sides. This way, he said, he would be closer to the subs warming up and to his fitness coach, making it less likely that opponents would hear his instructions to them. But it caused quite a stir. So much so that Fueyo said he felt bad about all the attention.
As the bus pulled out, he insisted: “The most important thing is that they come back with the three points.”
Everyone else thought so too. Before training, fans hung a banner alongside the pitch at Mareo that read: “If you fight and believe, you can do it.” A thousand of them made the journey south. Nor was it just in Gijón: in Granada and Pamplona they thought it important that Sporting come back with three points too. It’s rare for two teams in the relegation zone to want the other team in there with them to win, but this week they did. Sporting at Leganés was an opportunity for them all, a tiny glimmer of hope. The truth, though, is that few were optimistic.
Osasuna have been in the relegation zone since week four without ever coming out again. Granada have been there since week five. Sporting won two of their first three games but slipped into the relegation in week eight, only twice emerging since briefly lifting their heads above the trench in weeks 10 and 14. In other words, for nine long weeks now, Sporting, Osasuna and Granada have been the bottom three. It had started to feel like they always would be; that this year there would be no fight for survival, no race for the line, just a slow, painful trudge to the end. Osasuna have won just once all season – in week eight – while Granada have won only twice. As for Sporting, they went into this weekend with just one win in 18 weeks.
Hope was fleeting; sometimes you see something, or think you do, but then it disappears again. Granada, the squad with 17 different nationalities, have tightened up under the most Granada man there is, Lucas Alcaraz. They beat Sevilla and last weekend defeated Las Palmas. But they’ve still lost four of six before this weekend – they travel to Eibar on Monday night. There’s a certain optimism about Osasuna since the sporting director became their third manager of the season. But while they scored two against Real Sociedad, three against Sevilla, three against Valencia and were arguably the better side for the first hour against Real Madrid on Saturday, they didn’t win any of those. Sporting, meanwhile, had lost six of their last seven.
They desperately need to improve. They even more desperately need someone to catch; for them to pull out, they had to pull someone else back in. There are only so many seats on the lifeboat.
That someone is probably Leganés. Málaga are sliding backwards, Deportivo too, and Valencia still haven’t escaped, the cover of Super Deporte on Monday morning running with The Scream and the headline “Panic”, but it is the first division debutants who mark salvation and although they started the season well – three wins and a draw with Atlético in their opening seven games – they were without a win in 10, and had scored just two in five, only 15 all season. Yet they, the team the bottom three were most likely to reach, were still only just within reach and might soon be gone: five points ahead of the relegation zone, eight if they beat Sporting.
Leganés-Sporting was an opportunity, but it was also an obligation. It wasn’t easy to be optimistic. “There’s a cemetery right by the stadium wall, which seemed a bad omen,” one Asturias-based newspaper noted. Sporting had not won away in over a year, since a penalty defeated Eibar way back in January 2016. “Leganés no falla,” ran the banner stretched across the stand: Leganés doesn’t fail. But Sporting needed them to; they had to win sí o sí, Rubi had said. Any way they could.
In the end, they won it in a way that doesn’t feel much like his way, but may have been the only way: a little long ball and a little lucky too. With the new signing Lacina Traoré up front – the tallest player in La Liga history – with Roberto Canella included and with Burgui coming off the bench. “We were well organised, well positioned,” Rubi said. “We gave them few chances, and they were at home.” Garitano called them “very direct”. It hadn’t always been pretty, admittedly, but Sporting competed and resisted. “It was rubbish in football terms,” one report admitted; “not a lot of football was played”, said another; a third recalled Javier Clemente’s famous term, “patapúm, p’arriba” – a kind of Spanish “’Ave it!”
Not that anyone cared, and nor should they. On a heavy wet pitch in the pouring rain and with the new signing Alberto Bueno heading wide Leganés’ best chance to score for the first time in three games, Sporting got the first just after the hour when they were most coming under pressure; it came, more to the point, when Canella’s soft shot slipped through Iago Herrerín’s hands – although the ref said it was the midfielder Moi Gómez in his report. Then with eight minutes left Burgui raced away on the left and made it 2-0, dashing to the corner, climbing the hoarding and performing a spot of crowdsurfing. At full-time, the players’ shirts followed suit. There were tears and embraces; “first division tears”, Marca called them. Two shots on target, two goals, and three massive points. Salvation within reach, just two points away now.
“Sporting have been strengthened emotionally, even though we’re ahead of them still,” Garitano said, “and that makes an even bigger difference than the points.” La Nueva España cheered: “This dead man is alive!”, its match report noting: “After months adrift, the shoreline looks a little closer to the red-and-white shipwreck now; the dead man breathes again.” Rubi’s coaching staff know that this will be hard, but Leganés are the lifeline that might have slipped from their hands.
“It’s still a small step but we’re one game from climbing out of there, which is where we wanted to be,” Rubi said. “We haven’t done anything yet but this is a huge injection of morale.” The Central defender Jorge Meré insisted: “We’re going to do this, no one should doubt that.”
As for Leganés, Garitano admitted: “We had the change to leave them emotionally hurt, and as it turns out we’re the ones emotionally hurt.” His words were important ones, not just in Gijón but in Granada and Pamplona too. On Monday morning, for the first time in weeks, it feels like there will be a relegation battle after all, and Leganés will be in it. They have no wins in 11 and Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Real Sociedad next up away, while their next three home games are against other (potential) relegation candidates Depor, Granada and Málaga, followed by Real Madrid.
“But,” the manager quite rightly insisted, “we haven’t come this far to give up fighting. We never achieved anything the easy way; we did it fighting. So we’ll keep going. We have to keep working and keep believing. There is nothing else we can do.”
• Copa del Rey week was followed by Copa del Rey weekend. Alavés and Barcelona will meet each other in the final in Madrid/Bilbao/Sevilla/Barcelona on 27 May having got through the semi-final in midweek, and they met this weekend in Vitoria. It was, they said, “a dress rehearsal”. Well, they were dressed anyway. But it wasn’t much of a rehearsal. In all probability, fewer than half the players who started at Mendizorroza on Saturday will start in the final in May. One who definitely won’t, sadly, is Aleix Vidal who suffered a terrible dislocated ankle that will see him miss the rest of the season – and just as he was starting to get opportunities too. Nor will Luis Suárez, who is suspended for the final. As for Alavés, their team will look totally different – and the match is likely to too.
“I hope this doesn’t effect us this weekend,” the Alavés manager Mauricio Pellegrino had said after the semi in midweek. It probably did, and there were a whole handful of changes, although Barcelona were also very impressive. Alavés had conceded just 10 goals at home all season. They let in six in 90 minutes this time.
• That was Saturday. On Sunday, the semi-final losers met at the Vicente Calderón in what turned out to be a real belter in the rain. Twice Celta led, twice Atlético turned it round, getting two late goals, one in the 86th, the other in the 88th, to make it 3-2. They should never have been allowed to get back into it, Toto Berizzo lamented, and for a long time Celta felt like they were in control. But Fernando Torres and Yannick Carrasco scored wonderful goals – “they were brilliant but they could try it 10 times again and it wouldn’t go in,” Iago Aspas said – and then amidst the tension and the excitement, hearts racing, Atlético were strikingly calm in constructing the winner, scored by Antoine Griezmann. Diego Simeone couldn’t say the same, sprinting down the touchline to leap onto his players.
“Life’s better lived madly,” the newspaper El Mundo said. “It escaped us in two minutes,” the Celta midfielder Jozabed said. “We played very well for 87 minutes, we controlled Atletico,” Berizzo added. But Griezmann said: “This is a team that always fights.” That’s one thing that identifies them, and the response was good here while they were unlucky to be knocked out of the Cup by Barcelona too, but there are others that are missing. They seem to be on edge more often and the control has gone, as has the defensive solidity. They have already let in as many this season as they did in the whole of last.
Torres scored that wonderful goal … and then thumped a penalty against the bar straight afterwards. That’s nine penalties Atlético have taken this season. They have missed six.
• Barcelona were top for three hours, but Madrid took it back off them with a 3-1 win over Osasuna. They had to suffer, too. Sergio León, in particular, was superb (as he often is) as Osasuna went for them, but Keylor Navas made two excellent saves and with Madrid shifting back to a four-man defence after Danilo was taken off injured at 1-1, Zidane’s side regained control for the final half an hour, Isco and Lucas Vázquez scoring.
• Pamplona also brought another horrible broken leg, this time for Bonnin Tano.
• Quique Setién described it as Las Palmas’ best game since he has been in charge, and he’s been in charge for some pretty damn good ones. But they still lost 1-0 to Sevilla. “They imposed themselves on us at times,” Jorge Sampaoli said, “but we played with fury.”
• Another week, another team (another team-ssuh, in fact) officially complaining about referees and demanding “respect”. Just stop it will you? Yes, even if you have a point.
• Aritz Aduriz, 36 years old, still scoring goals. Still? More than ever before.
Results: Espanyol 1–2 Real Sociedad, Betis 0–0 Valencia, Alavés 0–6 Barcelona, Athletic 2–1 Deportivo, Osasuna 1–3 Real Madrid, Villarreal 1–1 Málaga, Leganés 0–2 Sporting, Las Palmas 0-1 Sevilla, Atlético 3–2 Celta. Monday: Eibar-Granada.
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