When the end came, Espanyol’s captain pulled his shirt over his face and sobbed, a member of staff taking him gently by the arm and guiding him off the Mestalla pitch and out of the first division. “We didn’t deserve it to end like this,” Sergi Darder had said, which was just about all he had been able to say; three men needed to compose him and carry him towards the camera where, exposed, his voice cracked and his eyes stung. That and “sorry”, plus a promise to be back that he knew was as hard to hear as to express. Then he raised an apologetic hand and, head covered, departed.
“When we were closest, it was gone: it was cruel,” said his coach, Luis García. In the 93rd minute of the 37th week of the longest and tightest relegation battle anyone had ever seen, when someone’s grip finally failed, survival torn from their fingers, it was theirs. “We had fought so hard to have our final at our home with our people,” Darder said, but Espanyol will not be in the fight for survival next Sunday. Six other teams, separated by two points, will be: Valladolid, Celta Vigo, Almería, Valencia, Cádiz and Getafe, each with their fate in their hands and hearts in their mouths.
There were so nearly seven of them, more than a third of the whole division. If Espanyol have been the most likely to go for a long time, survival always just out of reach, this has been Spain’s Sarlacc pit, a place where no one, except Sevilla, was able to pull clear; where no one let go, either, except Elche, who disappeared weeks ago. Every time it seemed done, it wasn’t, every combination compressing it more, like it was scripted. Only who would script this, a story where in the last seven days alone, Valladolid beat Barcelona, Valencia beat Madrid, Getafe won at Betis, and Espanyol came from 3-0 down to draw with Atlético? Where someone could go down with more than 40 points?
With each passing week, it seemed to get tighter. In this, the penultimate week, where six endangered clubs faced each other, and everyone played simultaneously, tension tearing at all of them, it got absurd.
On 89min 42sec in the pouring rain at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, Jaime Mata scored his first goal in 18 months with what he called the worst shot of his life, to give Getafe, who had trailed within two minutes, a 2-1 win over Osasuna. Down among the confetti in Cádiz, the Carranza looking every bit the Bombonera, the home side were 1-0 up, Gonzalo Escalante brilliantly setting up Rubén Sobrino. Although injured Iago Aspas was on – “practically in a wheelchair” as he put it – Celta had not found an equaliser, Conan Ledesma making one barbaric save. Over the other side of Andalucía, Almería were dominating Valladolid – 23 shots they had rattled off – but still couldn’t make a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, at Mestalla, in a match between two relegation-threatened clubs who had more first division seasons under their belts than anyone except ever-presents Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol had come from a goal down to lead Valencia 2-1. All of which meant that, as everyone went into additional time, there were seven teams within three points, all living to fight another day: Espanyol on 38, Valladolid on 39, Celta, Almería and Valencia on 40, Getafe and Cádiz on 41.
If Espanyol were still the lowest of them, they would play Almería at home on the final day while Getafe and Valladolid faced each other: somehow they had put themselves in a position where a victory would see them safe. They had trailed to a Diego López goal – for all the talk of experience, it is the kids who are saving Valencia – and had been taken apart in the first half. When César Montes headed in their equaliser on 40 minutes, it was their first attempt, while Valencia were on 10. But Martin Braithwaite made it 2-1 five minutes into the second half and everything had changed.
Another effort from Montes on 76 minutes, which would surely have secured victory for Espanyol, was ruled out on the infuriatingly familiar grounds that the goalkeeper couldn’t catch a cross and the attacker had committed the crime of daring to jump. On the touchline, Rubén Baraja, the Valencia coach, was frantically trying to get his team going. The PA announcer was trying too, but, exhausted and prisoners of their fear, they no longer carried a threat. “There are nerves, a lack of confidence, anxiety: they’re people,” Baraja said. Every pass was going astray, every cross sailing harmlessly into the arms of Fernando Pacheco. As for Espanyol, they kept the ball and, when they did break, they ran free.
Which is when it happened. On 92min 14sec Braithwaite dashed through the middle, an opportunity to run down the clock as much as run at goal. As he passed José Luis Gayà, the Dane tumbled. For a moment, it felt like there was a pause, like this was it. But there was no whistle. Gayà recovered, won the ball back and slotted it through. A moment’s inertia, a huge hole, and suddenly, inside the Espanyol area, running on to the ball with no one anywhere near him, there was Samuel Lino. Steadying himself, he lashed high into the net.
Then he slipped to his knees, like his legs gave way, and cried. “I got emotional,” he said afterwards. By the bench Baraja was going wild, the stampede of players thundering past him on both sides, substitutes and staff setting off for the pitch. It had happened again. In the last month alone goals in minutes 93, 93 and 89 have kept them alive. This was definitive, they thought. No wonder Mestalla lost its collective mind.
Espanyol surrounded the referee, desperately clinging to something they knew was gone, reaching for one last way back that they almost found, too. On 95min 35sec, a Joselu shot flashed across the six yard box where Braithwaite was taken out by Gabriel, legs wrapped either side of him, but nothing was given. On 96min 51sec, the Brazilian defender had to move fast to pull his hand out of the way of a ball. And then on 98min 01sec – the last game to come to a close on Sunday – the whistle went.
Sevilla 1-2 Real Madrid, Valencia 2-2 Espanyol, Cádiz 1-0 Celta Vigo, Athletic Club 0-1 Elche, Girona 1-2 Real Betis, Getafe 2-1 Osasuna, Barcelona 3-0 Mallorca, Atlético Madrid 2-1 Real Sociedad, Almería 0-0 Valladolid, Rayo Vallecano 2-1 Villarreal
Espanyol’s players surrounded the referee again; Valencia’s just ran about, going everywhere and nowhere. Some did, anyway; others didn’t have the legs or the mind for it any more. Mouctar Diakhaby lay there, arms out, a star on the grass. Safety had been secured, most of them thought. There is, though, a scenario where they could still go down: if they finish level with Cádiz, Getafe and Celta. That’s because Spain uses head-to-head if two teams finish level and a mini-league between the teams involved if more than two sides do – and in that scenario Valencia would finish bottom. “There’s a way, but we’re going to think positively,” Baraja said.
With a five-way tie still possible, there are multiple permutations. Only one thing is certain: Espanyol, like Elche, have gone, relegated for the second time in four years and feeling like it was taken from them. Four days earlier, Atlético Madrid had been given a goal that Pacheco had stopped – on? over? – the line (there is no goalline technology) and now another decision had gone against them. “This has been a reflection of our season,” Darder said. “We have done so much wrong, and there is no excuse because 38 games put everyone in their place, but once again things beyond our control have gone against us.”
García too was furious, more about the Montes goal being disallowed than any potential foul on Braithwaite. Asked if he had asked the referee for an explanation, he shot back: “What for? All it does is wind you up. Whatever I say, that’s not going to change. Espanyol are in the second division.” But when their paths crossed just before they left, he did accost the ref. By then, the game was gone and so too were they. “Those decisions have consequences, although we have to look at ourselves too,” the coach said. “There’s nothing, just sadness and anger. It’s hard to see a dressing room that’s so hurt, that has given its soul. But this is no time to self-destruct. This club is immortal, eternal, and we’ll be back.”