With time and hope slipping away, the game changed. “There was nothing else for it,” said the Rayo Vallecano coach Paco Jémez, “so you go: ‘come on then, let’s play Russian roulette. See if we get lucky.’” A few metres to his right, standing by the bench beneath a blackening sky, Huesca manager Francisco Rodríguez had pretty much the same idea and so did the 22 desperate men before them, plus the 10,542 people watching from the stands, chests tightening. “The league was leaving us,” the Huesca manager admitted and they weren’t alone: the league was leaving them both, which is why they ran wild.
“We had to,” he said.
Forget the five games that follow, Huesca and Rayo had 25 minutes left in the first division – or at least that’s how they felt. It was bottom versus second bottom, eight and six points from safety respectively. “Everything depends on this,” Jémez had said. “For both of us, only a win will do if we want to reach the end of the season with a chance.” Francisco called it “a final, the most important of them all.” And although José Pozo had hit a post from 10 yards, Raúl de Tomás had a goal ruled out by the VAR, and Roberto Santamaría had made a superb save, no one was winning. They still weren’t after De Tomás put another just wide, Enric Gallego did the same and Alberto García made an excellent stop of his own.
A draw was a defeat, probably death, for both of them and it would be tempting to say you could smell the fear, but it’s not fear you smell at Vallecas. The score refused to move; the clock refused to stop. Time, then, to play something completely different. With every passing minute, it had become more open; with 15 minutes left, it was all out, next goal wins, ever more frantic, footballers all over the place, accelerating out of control. “It just happens,” Alejandro Gálvez admitted. No one told them to, he said, but no one told them not to either. “I didn’t care,” said Francisco. “I wasn’t going to stop anyone, if they want to go up front, go.” On the touchline he screamed at his players to attack.
So they went and didn’t always come back. “There’s no room to think, to calculate: you attack and if you hit them you hit them and it they hit you they hit you,” Jémez said. “There was no time, so you break from the script. The full-backs attack, the midfielders attack, they don’t defend, it goes one way then it comes back again. You have a chance, they have a chance, you have a chance, they have a chance. I have a great time when it’s like that: you see things you don’t normally see in football. And anyway, if it was mad, there was no choice, no time for anything else. In the end it was a necessity. The draw was no good to us. And if it was no good to us, imagine Huesca.”
They could see it, every play a portrait of what was at stake, what football means, the essential absurdity of it all, and the plays were multiplied, one after the other, one end to the other. Rayo had proposed something completely different and Huesca, already trying to take this to another place, took them up on it. “Both our needs were there to see,” said Huesca’s Javi Galán. It wasn’t always very good but it was great: it had become almost primitive.
The shot count reached up towards 30, the ball flashed across one six-yard box and then the other. And every time it did, they thought it was over.
Soon it was. With a minute to go, Cucho Hernández was stopped, inside the six-yard box. With 30 seconds left, the ball fell to Xabi Etxeita – a defender – three yards out. Three. Somehow, the ball went over, leaving him just standing there. For a lingering moment, there was surreal silence. The place was almost full but for a moment no one said anything, or did anything, the ground quiet.
Without saying anything, they shared something. José Pozo said he had not spoken to any of Huesca’s players, but admitted: “We both knew what this meant.” Yangel Herrera called it “a bitter thing to swallow.” For everyone. A draw meant they both lost: not just on Saturday, but this season. “A draw that pushes them both into hell,” AS called it. “Two death certificates were signed”, El País wrote. They’d done everything they could, but in the end, they both lost, in all likelihood leaving just one relegation place for Valladolid, Levante, Girona. Celta and Villarreal to avoid.
Tomás, Rayo’s most important player by far, will be suspended for the next game against Sevilla; the game after that he won’t be allowed to play because of a clause in his contract preventing him from facing Real Madrid. After a weekend in which Celta won, Villarreal won and both Levante and Valladolid drew, Rayo are six from safety. They have only been out of the relegation zone once since September. “With every game it gets harder, if I didn’t say that I would be lying,” Jémez said.
Huesca felt they had gone already. They’ve always known it might end this way: they have the second smallest salary cap in primera at €29.3m, the second smallest ground at 7,500, and this is their first top-flight season. According to AS, the total cost of the squad that started the season was €600,00 and although they became the first debutant to win their opening game for 70 years, they didn’t win again for 21 weeks, slipping into the relegation zone in September and to bottom place in early October.
But all that makes them sound worse than they have been, like they won’t be missed when they will. They’ve improved under Francisco, who replaced Leo Franco.
You can go back over the last 19 games and make the case that they were well beaten just once – the 3-0 against Atlético, one of only two games they’ve lost by more than a solitary goal. The other is a 3-1 against Alavés, when they conceded in the 80th and 86th minutes. Enjoyable to watch, they beat Sevilla, drew 0-0 with Barcelona and deserved much more in the 1-0 and 3-2 losses to Madrid, Benzema scoring an 89th minute winner at the Bernabéu. They lost 2-1 to a 94th-minute goal against Valencia, and by the same score having led 1-0 against Getafe.
Hope has always been there, particularly when they beat Girona and Valladolid, but always just out of reach. Against Celta a fortnight ago, the first time Francisco looked a broken man, they came back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 but conceded an equaliser and then somehow Gallego missed an open goal in the last minute. This time, on the day when a win would have taken them off the bottom, when football gave way to Russian roulette, it was Etxeita. And then hope was gone.
As he sat before the media, Francisco shook his head sadly. “We knew this was a ‘final’, so it’s natural the players felt survival slipped through our fingerso,” he conceded. “But there can be no reproach. We’ve been at the bottom for eight months, we’ve been 14, 15 points from safety, and we got to here, trying to win until the end. We’ll keep fighting to the very last day.”
• Antonio Mateu Lahoz spent Sunday in front of the telly. It was a huge game at the Coliseum, Getafe (fifth) against Sevilla (fourth) for the final Champions League place and he was about to play a decisive role. Two dead balls from the right, two handballs, and two interventions from the VAR sent him across to the touchline where he decided to give two penalties, taken by two different players – first Mata, then Molina – which gave Getafe a 2-0 lead over Sevilla. He also sent off Escudero for two yellow cards. Getafe added a neat third in the second half, taking Getafe two points ahead of Sevilla. They really might make it, you know.
• Zinedine Zidane was asked if he could understand Gareth Bale getting whistled by the Bernabéu. “No,” he said. He could understand them cheering Karim Benzema, though. Benzema has now scored Madrid’s last eight goals.
• This is getting silly now. In three months without Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo won once, drew once and lost 10, slipping from ninth to 18th, four points from survival. Since then, this has happened:
- In the first game, he scored twice to bring Celta back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Villarreal.
- In the second, he scored one and made one to go 2-0 up against Huesca. On the point of exhaustion and removal, he witnessed Huesca score three in 10 minutes to take the lead, so had to stay on. Which he did, making the equaliser with his last touch, withdrawn shattered, strained to breaking point.
- In the third, he scored two to take Celta from 1-0 down against Real Sociedad to 2-1 up, before Maxi added a late third, carrying Celta two points clear of the relegation zone.
- In the fourth, he was suspended. Celta lost.
- In the fifth, he scored one and gave an assist in a 2-1 win.