La Liga Analysis Opinion

Estadio Montilivi, Girona – There are certain days when things are decided. Places are guaranteed, achievements are made, or lady luck runs out; there are matchdays when things fall into place. Sunday was that day. Everything built up to a kickoff of 5.30pm sharp; all La Liga games were simultaneous, adding to the sense that it all really mattered. There were things to keep a check of here whilst keeping abreast of that over there, it was manic, it was dramatic and it was, ultimately, decisive.

In truth, it was only decisive as this season’s La Liga – entering its 37th and penultimate week – can be. The league title had not only been won but also, a fine rarity in Spain, actually awarded. The top four featured three teams certain of Champions League football next season whilst two of the relegation spots had been claimed with two games to play. But still on a crucial day in La Liga, the rest was falling into place.

Valencia took control of fourth spot with a win over Alaves, they now only need to match the results of Getafe and Sevilla on the final day to guarantee a top four finish. Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Real Sociedad all won to maintain their fine forms since the turn of the year, keeping them all close to a possible Europa League placing. Whilst Girona’s defeat at home to Levante, having taken the lead, sent them all but down. They now need to beat Alaves next week and hope that not only Celta Vigo lose to Rayo but there’s also a six-goal swing.

Even distilled like this, the situations are not crystal clear. Let alone when the action is taking place all over the country collectively. The evening ended though with mixed emotions; with Valencia’s joy of being in control for fourth contrasting with Alaves disappointment of missing out on Europe completely having been in the top eight for 32 weeks of the campaign. But nowhere were emotions more defined than at Montilivi. There were tears for both sides; Levante secure, Girona down and practically out.

When Levante manager Paco Lopez entered the serenity of his press conference room he made the point that despite being inwardly euphoric, he wanted to show respect to opponents for the day, Girona. He knew very well how difficult it is to deal with relegation, having been on the cusp with his own club, and didn’t want to revel too much in the misfortune of his hosts. His players next door in the dressing room couldn’t contain their joy; shouting, singing and banging all came through the walls deep within Montilivi but Lopez wanted to stay calm and pay respect to Girona.

For they, barring a miracle, are exiting La Primera after two seasons in the division. Few saw this coming; having impressed on their arrival last campaign with a tenth-placed finish, Pablo Machin was gone and they have never looked the same since. Despite the best efforts of Eusebio Sacristan, who the club stuck with despite free-fall form of late, Girona are heading down. The Catalans have only been in the relegation zone for three weeks of the season, in some ways they don’t deserve to go down, in others they do.

Girona have the fourth most prolific striker in the league, Cristhian Stuani has racked up 19 goals, fewer only to Leo Messi, Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez. Sacristan’s side have also beaten Real Madrid this season, drew at Camp Nou and knocked Atletico Madrid out of the Copa del Rey. The issue has been their form since Christmas, and in particular the past month and a half. They have relinquished a nine-point buffer from the drop in six weeks. Coming back will not be easy, there will be major reconstruction on the squad and it is unlikely Stuani will stay. For a club partly owned by the City Group, there will need to be plenty of re-energising.

Girona’s implosion has gifted survival in the top-flight to Celta Vigo and Villarreal who have both heavily flirted with relegation this season. Prior to taking on Levante, though, Girona still harboured hope, there were flags and banners and about 13,500 crammed into the stadium that still has temporary stands. There was also a healthy contingent of fans from Valencia who certainly made their presence known; it was a side of Spanish football that too often doesn’t exist.

Then on the dot at 5.30pm, it all started, permutations and eventualities at the disposal of all up and down the peninsula. There was a feeling of this is it, often the penultimate brings more drama and decisions than the finale, and so it proved. No sooner had the ball begun rolling had Levante lost their left-back. Tono departed injured and unable to hide his despair. Leaving such an occasion cannot have been easy.

Girona started the brighter of the two sides and Stuani forced Levante keeper Aitor Fernandez into a reflex save with barely five minutes played. Having not woken up to the situation that they find themselves in terms of the standings for far too long, Girona had little choice but to step up to the plate in their final home league game, despite having only won there thrice all season. As the minutes turned into double figures, the home side got closer and closer – Stuani often being the architect.

Then the roars started. Athletic Bilbao had scored twice in the Basque country, in turn knocking Celta Vigo down a peg or two and bringing them within reach of Girona. The news filtered through the crowd, originating from earpieces and then turning into cheers. The issue for Girona was that they were still drawing, they needed to do their part. Celta Vigo, now having conceded a third, were pending defeat, Girona’s main focus was now their opponents Levante. And yet half time arrived and still there were to be no goals at Montilivi, there had been few nerves at the start but now with essentially 45 minutes left to determine their La Liga status, some began to creep in.

The hour mark came and went without anything of note happening. Enis Bardhi fired a shot wide and that’s about it. Then out of the blue Stuani scores. The temporary scaffolding, which Girona call stands, rattles as thousands bounce in unison. Athletic are doing their bit and Girona are now doing there’s.

If that was the peak of Girona’s emotions on what was to ultimately become a chastening day, then soon enough their world came crushing down. Jose Luis Morales scored a header to equalise for Levante, less than a minute after Girona had gone ahead. Now staring at relegation again, it all started to become too much, too real. When Pere Pons was brought down in the penalty area, Montilivi though it had got its moment. Redemption and a reincarnation.

The referee pointed to the spot and Stuani prepared to take it. But VAR had its say, after three possibly four minutes of doing so, the decision was reversed. Whistles reverberated around the stadium, a sense of injustice prevailed and when Bardhi charged through on goal to score the winner, the emotions turned to sorrow. A sense of that’s that. Across the away section behind the goal, those in maroon and blue sing like tomorrow is never going to come, and yet in a La Liga sense, for them it is.

For Girona though, it won’t. Miracles do happen in football, but Girona will not be able to extend their stay in La Liga to a third season. Eusebio started his press conference with an apology: “I want to accept my responsibility”. His words were full of sorrow, of what might have been and, in certain aspects, failure. Just as there were tears on the faces of the travelling Levante fans, the Girona players released tears of a different kind, as their fate had been sealed on a pivotal penultimate day.

Los Otros Puntos

Valencia are in control of their own destiny. Having lost to Arsenal in midweek, Marcelino’s side kept hopes of competing in next season’s Champions League alive by beating Alaves. The result at Mestalla was made all the more important as Getafe lost away to Barcelona and Sevilla drew to Atletico. It means that both Valencia and Getafe are on 58 points going into the final weekend, but due to the head-to-head being in Valencia’s favour, they only need to match Getafe’s result.

Seemingly from out of nowhere Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Real Sociedad have emerged. Athletic, in particular, have vastly changed their fortunes since the turn of the year. Since Gaizka Garitano took charge in December, Athletic have collected 42 points from a possible 69; they only had 11 when he arrived. Now they stand on the verge of Europe, knowing that a win against Sevilla next week will guarantee it.

Valladolid and Villarreal also guaranteed their safety with wins over Rayo Vallecano and Eibar.

There was also a goodbye from Diego Godin, who leaves Atletico after nine seasons…

… and also a good hit from Joaquin.

Los Resultados

Athletic 3-1 Celta Vigo

Atletico 1-1 Sevilla

Barcelona 2-0 Getafe

Real Betis 2-1 Huesca

Girona 1-2 Levante

Rayo Vallecano 1-2 Valladolid

Valencia 3-1 Alaves

Villarreal 1-0 Eibar

Leganes 0-2 Espanyol

Real Sociedad 3-1 Real Madrid

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis Opinion