Sporting, Leganes battle to stay in La Liga as Real aim for title

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Fighting for survival: Sporting Gijon's defender Lillo Castellano crouches after defeat.

Regular readers of the column will recall that back in October I flew south to watch the game between Granada and Sporting, a turgid 0-0 draw that threatened to make a mockery of my trip until that same evening I stumbled (in a bar) upon a wonderful flamenco-singing couple, showing far more passion than the home team had demonstrated.

In the article I later concluded that both teams were ‘destined to struggle, but especially Granada’, which hardly qualifies me as a wise soothsayer, but I nevertheless got it right. Seven months later, in the chilly yellow of spring, Granada are down (and out) and Sporting are hanging on for dear life.

In many ways, it is these stories that furnish football with its real emotions – the sheer grubby agony of a relegation fight whilst the teams at the top cruise on and the middleweights relax and begin to plan their summer holidays.

Sporting de Gijon’s 1-0 home win against Las Palmas was the first time this season that the hosts have not conceded a goal at home. Third from bottom with a mathematical chance of survival, they simply had to win the game in order to keep Leganés (and Deportivo) in their statistical sights.

Las Palmas arrived as decent cannon-fodder, in an alarming decline and on a run of only one win in the last eight. They hadn’t won away since the opening game of the season, a 4-2 thumping of Valencia which seemed to presage a happy season ahead but which was in reality a false dawn.

Sporting’s sporting chance, if you’ll forgive the phrase, now rests on Monday night’s game between Leganés and Betis, in Madrid. It was a shame that this match was scheduled for the Monday, so central has it now become.

If Leganés win – and with Betis safe you suspect they certainly might – then Sporting will fall back to six points behind and will need to win their two remaining games and hope Leganés lose both of theirs. The drama that this sort of situation generates often supersedes the issues of who will play in Europe next year, for example.

Sporting registered a capacity crowd for the Las Palmas game, and celebrated at the final whistle as if they had won the league. It’s a curious state of affairs, but sport-related emotions rarely respond to logic. Hope springs eternal, until the mathematics finally kick in.

In the satellite community of Leganés, they’re all pumped up for Monday night’s game, and will attend in their droves. Sporting de Gijón play Eibar and Betis to end their season, and could quite feasibly win both.

With the head-to-head on Leganés, the league’s new-timers must beat Betis on Monday but then squeeze a point from Athletic or Alavés to guarantee another season in the elite. It might seem small beer for the teams in the top seven (for whom Europe should beckon next season), but emotional satisfaction arises proportionally from expectations – which is a posh way of saying that if you don’t expect much, the rewards are often greater. It’s worth remembering the dictum, at this stage of the season.  

Relegation is never much fun, unless it galvanises a club and enables them to reflect on what has gone wrong – the first step in getting the wheels back onto the tracks. Granada, a club whose turn-over of players has simply been too great in the past two seasons, paid the price in the end.

Enduring tough times: Osasuna manager Petar Vasiljević

Enduring tough times: Osasuna manager Petar Vasiljević

However, unlike Osasuna, you feel that the messages coming from their post-mortem declarations veer towards the positive, even as they lost their sixth game in succession on Saturday, 4-0 at home to Real Madrid’s reserves. The last time they went on such a poor run was in 1975, and next week, symbolically perhaps, they visit bottom club Osasuna, the only side this season who have managed to make Granada feel better about themselves.  

Osasuna, up to their necks in financial problems, saddled with a debt of 10 million still owed to the regional tax authorities, and under investigation for alleged payments to Betis in 2014 to throw a game against them, look destined for a rather less promising future.

This time, no payments would have saved them, and their 88 goals so far conceded is the worst defensive record at this level since Nastic conceded 99 in 1951.Osasuna are unlikely to return to this level in the immediate future. As Captain Oates famously remarked, as he stepped out of his tent into the blizzard, ‘I may be gone for some time’

What it is that marks out a relegation candidate, so much so such that it was obvious back in October that Granada and Sporting would struggle? Interestingly enough, one of the signs was the body language of their respective coaches (Abelardo and Lucas Alcaraz). The former seemed a bag of negative nerves, cursing at the skies at every misplaced pass and positional error, blaming the slings and arrows, but never himself.

Lucas Alcaraz, Granada’s coach that night, simply paced up and down like a silent but deranged panther, trapped inside a zoo cage. You just knew they wouldn’t last the season, and you’d have been right.

On the pitch, both sides lacked creative midfielders. Granada went for muscle, Sporting for lighter more insubstantial types – but at least the side from the north unearthed Burgui and later Mikel Vesga from the ruins of the season – loan players who they will need to keep on next campaign, wherever they end up.

The full-backs were always too scared to overlap, and the forwards dropped too deep. There didn’t seem to be any obvious plan or style, and no single player seemed to be taking the reins – a sure sign of trouble. Oh – and neither of them scored, or even looked remotely like doing so. It tends to become a problem.

In a parallel universe, Real Madrid exercised their frisky ponies in an Andaluz field at the weekend, whilst the stallions were rested for the rigours to come in the Calderón on Wednesday night. Atlético, who lost 3-0 last week in the Bernabéu, are also clinging to the idea that hope springs eternal, but found it rather more difficult to dispatch a lively Eibar (1-0) on Saturday than their Champions League opponents who walked to an aforementioned 4-0 win in Granada, all the goals scored in the first half.

The fabled double (League and Champions League) for Real Madrid, not won since 1958, thus remains alive and kicking, although Barcelona’s convincing defeat of the potentially dangerous Villarreal (4-1) keeps the Catalans on top of the tree for the time being. Real Madrid now require seven points from their three remaining games, starting with a tricky one at home to Sevilla next Sunday. With Barcelona facing Las Palmas and Eibar to finish their league season, you get the impression that Real Madrid will need all seven points.

It’s difficult to see Real Madrid blowing it on Wednesday night, but you never know. Assuming that logic prevails and they win, their sky-high morale should see them through their next three games, stressful though the pressure to keep winning might be. The grand finale approaches, at the bottom and at the top, and there are still some possible twists and turns. Do not adjust your set.

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