Mendizorrotza, Vitoria-Gasteiz – “This is the most beautiful day of my sporting life, I feel very proud.” Standing on the touchline, dripping with sweat Manu Garcia was ecstatic, thoughtful, tired but ecstatic. He had done it, the captain of Alaves, the leader of Alaves had headed in to defeat Real Madrid in the 5th minute of stoppage time. Considering Garcia’s professional career started in 2005, his claim is quite something, but completely understandable. His goal had sent Alaves top of La Liga.
“I saw the ball, it had gone a little long and I followed in the rebound,” Garcia said. Sometimes football is capable of this, we received a great prize for our humility.” It was Alaves’ first win against Real – albeit a struggling version whose time without a goal now stretches to six hours and 49 minutes – since 2000 and their first at home in 87 years; it felt beautiful.
Garcia has previous at snatching important late goals; in his own words, Alaves’ first game back in the Primera in 2016 was “a fairytale”. It was the 93rd minute against Atletico Madrid when Garcia struck a rocket of a shot from 25-yards out to earn a draw. After 10 years away from the Spanish top-flight, including three of them spent in Segunda B, that strike felt like a dream. It represented an end of one particular journey and also the start of a new one.
Garcia and Alaves’ journey continued here. The man who spent the first eight years of his playing career in the third division and thought he would spend the rest of it there too, who admits that his “objective” – albeit “distant” and “unlikely” – was to play in the second division; a man who was not given a chance in the first-team at Real Sociedad, was dropped by Girona after four weeks, was left unregistered by Eibar and who “couldn’t even imagine” playing in the top flight, had done it again.
To say that Garcia is ‘Mr. Alaves’ is no exaggeration. The first time that his name appeared on the Alaves shirt was in 2001 when they embossed it with the name of every socio – they were literally the fabric of the club. His was on the front: ‘Manu Garcia’ in fine lettering right in the middle, close to the badge. Now, however, it is on the back, but he still has that one in his house, “a treasure,” he calls it.
It still irks him that he couldn’t be in Dortmund for the Uefa Cup final against Liverpool; a season-ticket holder who was forced to watch the match on television having joined Real Sociedad’s youth system up the road in San Sebastian. A Vitorian through-and-through, he used to leap the fence at the front of the general stand at Mendizorrotza, where his dad took him as a boy, and on to the green turf.
Playing on it in a professional capacity, though, often seemed far away for the homeboy, even until recently. Midway through a career spent entirely in the Segunda B – after winning promotion with Real Union he was forced to return to Eibar rather than go up with them – the team Garcia calls home, however, signed him in 2012.
At that point, Alaves were in administration – a far cry from where they now find themselves. Under new owners, who came from success in basketball, stability was brought. A big club with a big fan base still loitered in the third-tier but a year later promotion came; a last-minute goal on the final day rescued them from heading back down. Garcia was the goalscorer.
In Alaves’ promotion-winning season to La Liga, he scored three in the last three games to clinch it. He was the captain, the outstanding player, once an attacker but now a more defensive midfielder. For Alaves, some say he will keep moving further and further back until he is in goal – so long as he stays at his club, he will do anything.
Back in the Primera, Garcia led the team to the final of the Copa del Rey, a run of games that everyone associated with the club will remember. For the supporters too young to remember 2001, it was the pinnacle of their Alaves-lives thus far. Although they were beaten 3-1 by Barcelona, it was a game full of pride; no more so than for Garcia who had his name not only on his back but also stitched into his captain’s armband.
And so to Saturday in Vitoria, there was only one empty seat in the stadium as Alaves welcomed Real Madrid – it was Garcia’s; he barely gets the chance to sit there nowadays, instead, he’s down there. And for a time last season, Alaves were also proverbially ‘down there’. An abysmal run of form under coach Luis Zubeldia – famous for his eye-wateringly tight trousers – left Alaves in a relegation battle from very early in the season. Gianni De Biasi attempted to steady the ship, but it wasn’t until Aberlado Fernandez arrived in December that it truly turned around.
A mere 10 months on and Alaves have collected more points than everyone else in the league baring Barcelona, Real and Atletico. A collective team spirit has been harnessed once again and Garcia is at the heart of it. Three wins out of the opening five matches of this season sent Alaves higher up the league than many expected. Although anything can happen in the early weeks of the campaign, it was noticeable that Alaves were continuing from where they left off last season and looked a force to be reckoned with.
But a draw at home to Getafe and a defeat last week away at Levante did slow Alaves in their tracks, although they did remain within touching distance of top-spot given the mishaps of Barcelona and Real. It led to the supporters heading into this ‘top of the table clash’ with little to lose and everything to gain. It was an opportunity for enjoyment, a party if nothing else.
‘ALARMA’ read the score bar at the top of the screen, and as MARCA had cleverly pointed out in the build-up, it was applicable to Real and their struggling form. Three games without a goal only increases the temperature of the Real hot-seat and Julen Lopetegui is feeling it.
Gareth Bale was in the starting XI after being taken off as a precaution in last week’s derby and Sergio Ramos was also recalled. The visitors had few early chances as Karim Benzema and Dani Ceballos produced the only attempts at Fernando Pacheco’s goal. A quick cross and a fine header from Benzema needed a clearance off the line; the fact that crosses were Real’s biggest goal-threat was quite telling.
Alaves’ confidence was palpable and contributed to an open first-half, the possession was evenly distributed and the home side were comfortable passing when under pressure from their visitors. As half-time came and went, Real’s goal drought became their longest since 1985; Lopetegui brought on Mariano Diaz to try and instigate better chances. On came Marco Asensio and Vinicius Jr but Alaves stood tall.
It was the hosts who had the best chance of the match when Jony ran through on goal in the 77th minute only to drag his shot wide of the goal when one-on-one with the imposing Thibaut Courtois. As the 90 minutes reached their climax it was clear that Alaves legs were growing weary, Real had increased the pressure and the nearest water bottle was sought whenever a player went down injured.
A draw was looking likely, the noise behind the goal grew ever louder. The flags were waved with a bit more vigour, scarves were raised a touch higher. Five minutes said the fourth official’s board; the stadium clock stopped and the whole of Vitoria were in the hands of the referee. A valuable point and a historic result.
A quick counter presented Alaves with a corner-kick. 94:10 said the clock. Surely not? Anyone expecting them to simply hold the ball in the corner until the shrill of the whistle was wrong. It was whipped in, headed back across goal by Ruben Sobrino taking Courtois out of the equation and there was Garcia – as he always seems to be – to send the Alaves fans wild.
Los Otros Puntos
It was the blue-and-whites rather than the red-and-whites that were celebrating on Friday night. Real Sociedad won the derby at San Mames and sent Athletic Bilbao to their second defeat of the season. Mikel Oyarzabal’s penalty gave the visitors the lead before Iker Muniain equalised just two minutes later. But two second-half goals from Luca Sangalli and Oyarzabal – again from the penalty spot – sent La Real into the top 10 and, more crucially, back home with a derby win.
At their 12th attempt, Leganes won a La Liga derby! Having lost eight and drawn three, it was against Rayo Vallecano, who they met in Segunda B only 10 years ago, that it came.
Barcelona’s run of La Liga games without a win was extended to four as they were held 1-1 by Valencia in a tightly contested at a highly-political Mestalla.
Enis Bardhi’s sweetly struck free-kick was enough to give Levante victory over Getafe.
There were five table-toppers over the course of this weekend: Barcelona, Alaves, Real Madrid, then Atletico Madrid and finally Sevilla. La Liga at its ‘boring’ and ‘uncompetitive’ best.
Athletic Bilbao 1-3 Real Sociedad
Girona 2-3 Eibar
Getafe 0-1 Levante
Alaves 1-0 Real Madrid
Leganes 1-0 Rayo Vallecano
Valladolid 1-0 Huesca
Atletico Madrid 1-0 Real Betis
Espanyol 3-1 Villarreal
Sevilla 2-1 Celta Vigo
Valencia 1-1 Barcelona