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Leganés show they can belong with kick against the tide in bid for survival

The chant set off round Butarque as a protest and came back as a party. “El Lega es de primera,” it runs – Leganés belong in primera – and the first time they launched into it, in the 12th minute of Wednesday night’s match against Las Palmas, it was a coordinated complaint, driven by anger and accompanied by banners and black cloth, sung by supporters scared that their status might be taken away. By the time they dared do it again 60 minutes later, it sounded different, hung on hope: vindication had turned to celebration. Leganés really might belong there, after all; now they believe Butarque will be back, with its sunsets, AC/DC soundtrack, and the smell of sizzling pork on portable stoves. With its football team, too.

Leganés were 2-0 up, thanks to two absurd gifts from their opponents – “accidents”, coach Quique Setien called them – and a third soon followed from a penalty that probably wasn’t, bringing another chant with it. “Bounce, Butarque, bounce!”, it went, and so they did. There was a Mexican wave, while out on the pitch someone dared to do a backheel, olés ringing out. At long last, the paralysis was broken and the fear subsided. In six minutes, Leganés had scored 10% of the goals they’ve got all season, securing a victory that sent Osasuna down mathematically, all but condemned Granada – they trail by 10 points and the head-to-head record – and left Sporting Gijón, struggling from the start, six points from safety. From them, in other words.

“We’ve never slipped into the relegation zone,” Rubén Pérez pointed out, down in the metal walkway that runs from the dressing room to the car park, and he was right. But Leganés had never really slipped away from it either. On Wednesday night at last, it felt like they had: it is still not done, and they know that, but survival is within reach.

Osasuna, Sporting and Granada have been the bottom three for 20 weeks. Deportivo de La Coruna have been just above them, and still may not be completely safe; Málaga monetarily looked anxiously over their shoulder; and Betis were frightened by their fall; but for the immense majority of that time, Leganés have been the shore that they’re swimming towards, their only real hope – 17th for the last seven weeks and for 12 of the last 16, they’re the team the others had to drag into the relegation zone to have a chance of dragging themselves out of it. And when Sporting defeated them in week 22, it looked like they might.

That day, Sporting moved to within two points and if they could not close the gap nor could Leganés get away from them. They lived parallel lives, unable to get each other out of their minds, either. “We’ve been hanging on their results,” Pérez admits. They met 12 games ago now: Sporting have won only once since then, Leganés could only manage two until Wednesday night, their results as bad as each other’s, going stride for stride, opportunities missed weekly. The gap went from two points to four a fortnight later and to seven a fortnight after that; two weeks on, it was back down to five, where it stayed for five weeks. But at the weekend, it was cut to four when Sporting came back from 2-0 down to draw with Osasuna, thanks to two goals in a minute, and by kick off on Wednesday night it was only three.

While Sporting drew with Osasuna at the weekend, the same day Leganés conceded a last-minute goal to lose at Villarreal. It was the second week running that it had happened, two potentially vital points slipping through their fingers in the 90th minute, and that hurt. What hurt more was that the goal had been punched in by Cédric Bakambu. And, while the creative geniuses behind Leganés’s matchday posters, a little fun fortnightly, were making light of it, declaring it time to forget the hands and concentrate on the Palm(a)s instead, fans were furious – not least because this felt like rejection or, worse, an attempt to get rid of them. Like no one wanted them: little Leganés the team that shouldn’t even be here. Like it wouldn’t happen to other, bigger teams.

Which isn’t true, of course – although it is true that few care when the victim isn’t one of them – but which is why in the 12th minute of Wednesday night’s game, the protest began. “Enough!” ran one banner. Another vowed: “in the face of adversity, this team will not give way.” And another demanded: “Respect for Lega.” There was also that classic Spanish statement of disgust: the pañolada or hanky-wave. And this time they had decided it had to be black, not white, which made things a bit more difficult. They came with cloth and scarves, some brought bin bags, and together they chanted. “El Lega es de primera.”

That spoke not just of frustration but the fear that they might not be – underlined, perhaps even deepened, by the fact that they openly said that Bakambu’s handball could cost them their place in the first division. On Tuesday night, Sporting had gone a goal up and eventually drawn with Espanyol. It could have been worse, but Leganés went into Wednesday night only three points clear, their shortest, most vulnerable lead in 10 weeks. Since losing to Sporting, they had won two huge games, head-to-head battles at the bottom against Deportivo and Granada, but they came into this having lost four in a row and having not won in seven, the tide rising round their necks.

Until, that was, Las Palmas pulled them out the water. Goalkeeper Javi Varas gifted the first, playing the ball straight to the former Sporting striker Miguel-Ángel Guerrero, who rolled it into Luciano to score. Hélder gifted the second with a pass just as absurd, Guerrero the beneficiary. And when Mauricio Lemos challenged Luciano Neves, Vicandi Garrido gave them the penalty that led to the third. Luciano scored from the spot and Setien grumbled: “I might try protesting too, see if they give me one”. For 54 minutes – for most of the season, in fact – Leganés had rarely looked like scoring, except when Diego Rico rattled the bar, but in six minutes they had three. They had a cushion too. “El Lega es de primera,” they chanted, and this time there was no bitterness, just belief.

“After a long time, we won,” Martin Mantovani said. “Emotionally, was very important to win.” One after the other, they took to Twitter, Darwin Machís, Pablo Insúa, Samu García, Jon Serrantes, Iago Herrerín, Alberto Bueno: a vital victory, a big step, three huge points, a little closer to the objective. It was, coach Asier Garitano admitted, a “liberation” after six weeks hanging on Sporting’s every move.

It is not done yet. Sporting have Villarreal next, then Las Palmas – and away from home, no one is worse right now – followed by Eibar and Betis. Everyone assumes that they will beat Betis on the final day because of what one Leganés player described as “the brotherhood” that exists between the clubs and their fans. Sporting also have the head-to-head advantage should they finish level. And Leganés, who have 30 points, know they will have to pick up more from Eibar, Betis, Athletic or Alavés. But six is a significant gap now and survival may well be “cheaper” than in previous seasons. “Las Palmas’s mistakes give Leganés half of their survival,” ran the headline in AS. “Las Palmas give Leganés oxygen,” said Marca.

“We’re happy; we know how hard it is. We know who we are and we know who we’re fighting against,” their coach, Aiser Garitano, said. “The final weeks will be hard, and we have to keep our feet on the ground, but for now we’re happy. We know that 30 points won’t be enough. We are better off than them, but we know we have to play better still. We can’t go ringing out bells yet, but we have a chance to survive.”

That is an achievement in itself; so is the fact that they’re here at all. It has been said before but it is worth reiterating: this is Leganés’s first season in primera and they’re the smallest club there. At the start of the season, only four of their players had cost anything at all and their fees were these: €1.3m, €1.1m, €800,000 and €400,000. Go through their squad and they have more experience in Spain’s tercera división than they do in primera – and if you’re talking tiers “third” doesn’t really mean “third”, it means anywhere from seventh to 24th. They have two players that Granada – Granada! – decided they didn’t want. And it is only three years since the club were in Segunda B, the country’s regionalised, eighty-team, four-grouped, theoretically amateur third tier. Butarque, their municipally-owned home, holds under 10,000.

Garitano’s first job was coaching Spain’s players union team for unemployed footballers and he is only in his sixth season as a coach. Their captain Martin Mantovani was on the verge of giving up at 21, had to return from France when an offer to go to Ligue1 turned out to be bogus and the agent offering it a conman, only reaching the top flight at 32. And their top scorer, Alex Szymanowski, is another Argentinian whose family came to Spain when he was 12 after his dad’s pizzeria was held up at gun-point, and who worked in a sports shop, as a delivery boy, lifeguard (unqualified), and a waiter, while he played third division football. He never thought he’d make it to the first division either, but here he is. Here they all are. And, who knows, at the start of next season they might just still be around, Butarque back for another season in primera where Leganés belong.

Talking points and results

“Hahaha” Deportivo coach Pepe Mel laughed. “I think it might be harder to beat Real Madrid B than to beat their A team.” He might have a point too. Not just because his team was hammered 6-2 last night by a Madrid side that only had two normal starters in it, but because this is not entirely new. Just like at Eibar and Butarque, the “second string” went to Riazor and were superb. Now, it’s worth noting that that’s not San Mamés, Camp Nou, the Calderón or the Pizjuán, but nor is it entirely coincidental. Stats are one thing – and, for example, they have won 12 of 13 without Cristiano Ronaldo, drawing the other and scoring 3, 2, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 6, 7, 6, 3, 3, 3, while Álvaro Morata has the best goals-per-minute ratio in the league after Messi and is Madrid’s second top scorer, and the contribution of an injury-hit Gareth bale this season has been virtually none – but the sensations are even stronger. “The warm-up act are a ballet,” ran the headline in El País. They’re often more coherent, more collective, more cohesive. As for Isco, well, he’s pretty special right now, unbeaten in fifty games. Asked about him, Zidane puffed out his cheeks and said: “Tremendous … he can do things very few players can do.” Madrid’s manager admitted that it’s hard, because he knows what comes next – telling them that they might not play at the weekend at the Bernabéu against Valencia (who will be without Zaza).

Leo Messi scored twice. So far, so standard, but try this: Paco Alcácer scored. Twice. Andre Gomes scored. Twice. And Javier Mascherano scored. Yep, him. It is his first club goal in seven years, when he was back at Liverpool, and his first for Barcelona – 319 games later. He’d already hit the post when Barcelona got a late penalty and he was called up to take it. “I tried to avoid it, but they insisted,” he admitted. Ivan Rakitic was going to have a go but then the “president” intervened, he said – Gerard Piqué, in other words. It was time to give this to Mascherano. All round the Camp Nou, and on the bench especially, people fell about. But he smashed it into the net. Perhaps he should take them all?

Madrid’s last game of the season is against Malaga, whose manager Míchel is a former Madrid player, on the pitch when they lost the title on the final day twice in a row in Tenerife. He says he would rather give Madrid a guard of honour than slip the knife in and, asked about that said he was “much more Madridista” than Jorge Valdano – the Tenerife manager back then. All of which, of course, wound them up in Catalonia. And wound up Malaga’s easily-wind-up-able president Sheik Al-Thani, who took to twitter – which is what he takes to rather too often – to spit: God willing, we will beat Madrid on the final day but that the scum from Catalonia will not even smell the title after making up lies about our coach.”

Villarreal Atlético’d Atlético. “That’s football,” Diego Simeone said. Worse than the defeat was the injury news: Yannick Carrasco is likely to miss the Champions League semi-final first leg.

The teams fighting it out for the final two European places are close. Very, very close. There are just 102km from Real Sociedad in 6th to Athletic Bilbao in 7th and, located in the Ego valley between the two of them, just 48km from Athletic to Eibar in 8th. Oh, and there are just 54km between Eibar 8th to Deportivo Alavés, the side that aspire to take the final slot by winning the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. Athletic’s late, late 1-0 win at Eibar on Monday night (the final game of Week 33) gave them a bit of a lead – they’re six points above Eibar now, two behind Real Sociedad – and tonight’s other derby, Alavés-Eibar, will clarify things, along with Athletic’s home match against Betis as Week 34 comes to an end. But one thing’s for sure: the Basque Country is the place to be. Well, apart from Madrid with its two European Cup semi-finalists, of course. Four teams competing for Europe in an area that accounts for just 1.4% of the Spanish territory and only 4.9% of its population. Aupa!

And one first division manager spoke for many as he left a stadium this week, saying: “Just let it end.”