Pitchside Europe

Liga’s relegation fight is where the excitement lies


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Giovani dos Santos

Forty seven seconds of the 93 minutes remained when Giovani dos Santos scored bottom-of-the-table Mallorca’s winner on Monday night. The Mexican’s career so far hasn’t fulfilled his early Barcelona potential. He’s still only 23, but the former Barcelona, Tottenham, Ipswich, Galatasaray and Racing Santander midfielder with 62 Mexico appearances has certainly experienced footballs ups and downs.

Monday night will be one of the moments he won’t forget. That his goal, the only one of the match, came against Celta Vigo, a place above Mallorca on goal difference was crucial. He received a yellow card for ripping off his shirt in celebration. He’d be happy to receive one each time he scores a winning goal.

“Yes we can!” sang the Mallorca fans in their soulless Son Moix stadium on the outskirts of Palma. ‘Yes, we can stay up.’ Over 18,000 Mallorca fans, far more than their 12,000 average, knew their side needed to win. And, thanks to the Mexican’s goal, they got that crucial win to lift them off the bottom.

Mallorca have endured a baffling season which started with three wins and two draws from their first five games. Coach Joaquin Caparros, who’d replaced Michael Laudrup in October 2011, surprised everyone at a club which has had seven presidents in four years, harbouring wildly unrealistic expectations given their boardroom instability and low crowds.

Previous coaches like Laudrup and Gregorio Manzano were not treated fairly by their president or the island’s media. They presided over a club which sold their best players every summer and yet were still expected to finish in the top six, when a more realistic aim would be to retain their 16 year top flight status.

The promising start was a false dawn and not even the arrival of on loan Scottish full-back Alan Hutton could stop them falling apart. Mallorca won one in 20 and sank from second to bottom. Caparros was replaced by Manzano, back for a third spell there, in February. He moved back into the same apartment, prompting a cheery: ‘Back again?’ from one neighbour. There are worse places to work than Mallorca. And if he keeps Mallorca up he may stay a little longer. It’s still a big ‘if’.

His Celta counterpart was furious, however.

“We did not deserve to lose like that,” stated Celta boss Abel Resino. “A point would have been fair.” Resino was right, but since when has football been fair? With one win in their last 13, his side now looked doomed, but Spain’s relegation battle is hard to predict and they’re not the first team to look destined for the drop this season.

Spain’s relegation fight is more exciting than its title race. With a double digit lead well before Christmas, the league has long been Barcelona’s. The other end of the table is far less predictable.

Espanyol were bottom and looking doomed in the autumn and their dire form led to Mauricio Pochettino’s departure. He may be doing well at Southampton, but Espanyol have been better off with Javier Aguirre and have lost just three in 18 since and risen from 20th to 11th. They’re safe.

Most freakish of all has been the rise of Celta’s Galician neighbours Deportivo La Coruna. They’ve won their last four, something they’d never managed in their entire history. Before that, they’d won one in 17. Depor have scored 13 in those four victories which started with their 3-1 derby win against Celta. Then they beat Mallorca and Zaragoza, three wins from three six-pointers, before they hammered Levante 4-0 on Saturday, with the opener scored by majestic 37-year-old Juan Carlos Valeron. He also made two more.

Depor coach Fernando Vasquez, their third boss of the season, is receiving much of the credit. The former Celta manager, out of club football for six years, took charge in February, with Depor bottom.

The twelve points have been sufficient for them to climb out of the relegation zone to 16th, but they’re in a group of five teams separated by four points from Osasuna in 15th to Mallorca, now off the bottom in 19th. There are seven games to play in a domestic season which runs until the last weekend in May.

Like Espanyol, Depor were one of several teams to have graced 20th before putting a run of form together to escape. Osasuna were another who were bottom of the league, this time in January, but they’ve managed five wins so far this year to nudge out of the relegation spots, five more than Real Zaragoza.

Relegation escapists Zaragoza dropped into the bottom three for the first time all season after Saturday’s 0-3 defeat at home to Barcelona. Zaragoza’s survival last year was one of the stories of the season and they appeared to have found their level as a mid-table club, yet they haven’t won in 2013, are firmly bottom of the form table with no win in 14 and have dropped from 12th to 18th. Their next fixtures? Away to Celta Vigo then home to Real Mallorca. In the dog-eat-dog relegation league all the precariously placed teams are about to play each other.

Without a win in eight, Granada are also plummeting. Like Zaragoza, they’ve won just three from 15 home games – sure relegation form. Write any team off at your peril though, as those who’ve done so to Espanyol, Osaunsa and Deportivo have discovered.

By Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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