Abel Resino's side had only a 22.2% chance of survival, but they stayed up as Zaragoza, Deportivo and Mallorca went down
In the 89th minute of the 38th week six teams' fates hung on one goal. All across the country they were reaching for the defibrillator, destination unknown. Garlic cloves were strewn across the turf, Virgin Marys kissed and rekissed. Fans crossed themselves again and wedged earpieces in as far as they would go. The abyss opened below them, a light shone above them. Even those who had given up couldn't allow themselves to actually give up, a lifeline suddenly laid before them. Roberto Soldado had just scored for Valencia. At the same time, Hélder Postiga put away a penalty for Real Zaragoza. Just then watches, synchronised at the start, ticked up to 89:00.
89 minutes and here are the scores: Sevilla 4-3 Valencia, Zaragoza 1-1 Atlético, Celta 1-0 Espanyol, Deportivo 0-1 Real Sociedad, Mallorca 4-2 Valladolid. Still it wasn't decided. Four teams were fighting to avoid the three relegation slots and the newspapers were turning all Highlander: there could be only one. Zaragoza, Mallorca and Deportivo were going down, while Celta de Vigo were set to survive. At the other end, two sides competed for the Champions League. It was Real Sociedad who were heading back there for the first time in a decade, with Valencia missing out for the first time in four years.
But a goal, and almost any goal, could change everything. A goal for Espanyol would save Mallorca. A goal for Zaragoza would save Zaragoza. And a goal for Deportivo would put Valencia back in the Champions League. Two goals for Deportivo would save Deportivo; so would one for Deportivo and one for Espanyol. Tick, tock, tick, tock ...
At the start of the final day of the Spanish season, the bottom of the table read: Mallorca 33 points, Zaragoza 34, Celta 34, Depor 35. The Romareda was packed, Riazor too. Mallorca had done battle with the Mexican Federation over its best player Gio dos Santos; the Spanish league, whose failure yet again to adhere to the Fifa calendar caused the problem in the first place, told Gio to stay. It cost them €80,000 in private jets, but it was worth it. Over in Vigo, Celta shirts adorned the city's monuments, and Balaídos was bursting. But still there was fear: both Javi Varas and Sergio Alvarez were injured; in goal was a 17-year-old debutant called Rubén Blanco.
The miracle was that some of them had made it this far: Celta had appeared dead and buried. "Our target was always to be playing the final game at home with a chance of survival," their coach, Abel Resino, said. Three players had suffered knee ligament injuries and they had been without their best player, Iago Aspas, for five weeks after he headbutted an opponent in the Galician derby. Mallorca were clinging on: for two consecutive weeks they had been a defeat away from mathematical relegation. "We have to believe in miracles," Gregorio Manzano had said. And as for Depor, their coach, Fernando Vázquez, had been carried out of the training ground on the shoulders on Thursday: they should have been dead and buried weeks ago; now they knew that if they won they were safe.
There were 81 different combinations of results and the stats showed that Deportivo had a 55.6% chance of survival, while Celta had a 22.2% chance, Zaragoza 17.3%, and Mallorca, the only side whose destiny was not in their own hands, 4.9%. And yet it was of course not that simple: Deportivo were the only side that faced someone with something to play for: Real Sociedad. That was everyone else's hope; Depor's hope was that, down in Seville, Valencia would make it so that even la Real had nothing to play for. If Valencia raced into an early unassailable lead, their Champions League rivals Sociedad would be powerless.
It started well: Ever Banega scored a brilliant opener at Sevilla. 1-0 to Valencia after 12 minutes. Three minutes later, Aspas set up Natxo Insa to score for Celta. It was only his third goal for the club: his first gave Celta promotion, his second was an equaliser against Barcelona, now his third might just mean salvation. One minute after that Alejandro Alfaro got the first for Mallorca. Six minutes later, Antoine Griezmann got the opener for la Real and six minutes after that Alberto Bueno equalised for Valladolid. Then José Luis Martí put Mallorca back in the lead. At the same time, Alvaro Negredo got his second goal in three minutes – a penalty to go with the overhead kick.
Now the pressure had switched sides. Valencia needed to beat Sevilla to clinch fourth place. Standing between them and that Champions League place was Sevilla's coach, Unai Emery, the man they sacked in the summer because three consecutive third places were not enough. This was a head-to-head between Soldado and Negredo too: the top scoring Spaniards in La Liga, Soldado is going to the Confederations Cup and Negredo isn't. Just after the hour, Negredo got his fourth of the game, his 25th of the season. In the 88th minute, Soldado got his second of the game, his 24th of the season.
The positions had not changed much: from the 15th minute, the teams going down were Deportivo, Zaragoza and Mallorca; from the 39th, the team going into the Champions League was Real Sociedad. Mostly, it had looked like staying that way: Depor hit the bar, but la Real had better chances; Sevilla were 4-2 up with half an hour left and Valencia were furious because the referee Clos Gómez had turned down two penalty appeals and sent of Jonas, the club's official Twitter feed accusing the referee of denying them the chance to reach the Champions League; Celta were leading early against a side that basically gave up six weeks ago; Zaragoza never even competed, not really – "they showed that they are infinitely better than us," said Zaragoza's coach, Manolo Jiménez, afterwards.
But if the positions had not changed much nor had they ever been secure. Now less than ever. Now, there was a chance. Postiga scored and Soldado scored. Two minutes remained, plus stoppage time. A goal could change everything. Up at La Coruña and down in Sevilla, 925km apart, opposite ends of Spain, the tension was unbearable. Real Sociedad were down to 10 men; Depor were getting desperate. In Mallorca, they were doing their bit but they always knew their bit might not be enough. In Zaragoza they weren't even doing that: Atlético got two more in the 89th and 90th minutes. Zaragoza were down; Mallorca and Deportivo were still fighting. Celta were safe but not actually safe. Not yet. In Vigo, they were whistling.
When at last, the referee did the same, they sprinted on to the pitch and invaded the fountain at the Plaza América, bouncing about in their boxers. Players disappeared under piles of bodies, fans clambered on to the crossbar and ran into the arms of their heroes. Aspas cried. Blanco was raised on to shoulders. At Riazor, home of their Galician rivals, Juan Carlos Valerón looked stunned: his 13th and last season at he club had ended with relegation. For Deportivo and for Valerón it was a second in three years. La Real's players celebrated over dinner, waggling a blanket up and down as they sang the Champions League anthem. Europe will welcome them with open arms: a brilliant team from a brilliant city, the best to watch in Spain this season.
In Zaragoza, fans surrounded the entrance to the directors' box and chanted for the president, Agapito Iglesias, to leave – a battle even more important than the one for survival – while police waded in and Atlético Madrid's manager, Diego Simeone, chose not to speak to the press out of respect to his relegated opponents. "This is the saddest day of my life," Jiménez said. Mallorca's victory carried an especially bitter taste; they had waited in vain for a goal from Espanyol. Sixteen years later they are back in the second division. They leave behind two third-placed finishes, an agonising fifth-placed finish, a Copa del Rey success and even a Cup Winners' Cup final appearance.
They also leave a mess and they are not the only ones. Relegation could be dramatic for all three of them. Depor and Zaragoza have both been down and back up in the past six years but returning may not be so easy this time. Parachute payments do exist at last, but the drop in TV money from €12-20m, depending on the club, down to around €3m is a gigantic blow and players will depart: some because they want to, some because the club want them too, and some because they will be forced to. None of Mallorca's club captains have renewed their contracts; Zaragoza's striker will be sold and their goalkeeper moved on by the investment fund that bought him in the first place; Depor's president has already announced that they will have to rely on youth teamers from now on.
Zaragoza are €100m in debt and Depor €156m, while Mallorca have just come through administration and are on a war economy. Attendances remain amongst the lowest in the division and battles over control of the Balearic club continue, with the majority shareholder, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, confronted by Pedro Terrasa and the German Utz Claasen, as a grab for power and shares commences. Serra Ferrer is also confronted by furious fans, just as Agapito is at Zaragoza: the circle tightens. Supporters have not yet turned entirely on the president, Augusto César Lendoiro, at Deportivo, perhaps grateful for the good times, but it won't be long until the administrators do.
In the 89th minute of the 38th week one goal could have changed their fate. They were close. But ultimately they have no one to blame but themselves. Survival would have papered over the cracks, disguising their problems. They might have carried on regardless. Now, they stare reality in face. And it doesn't look good.
Results: Real Madrid 4-2 Osasuna, Barcelona 4-1 Málaga, Mallorca 4-2 Valladolid, Celta 1-0 Espanyol, Sevilla 4-3 Valencia, Granada 2-0 Getafe, Rayo 2-2 Athletic, Levante 1-1 Betis, Deportivo 0-1 Real Sociedad, Zaragoza 1-3 Atlético.
Champions: Barcelona (and their 4-1 win means that they reached 100 points and equalled the record set by Real Madrid last season)
Champions League: Madrid, Atlético, Real Sociedad
Relegated: Zaragoza, Deportivo, Mallorca
Europa League: Ah, well, that's a bit confusing. Because Atlético Madrid won the Copa del Rey, there are three places decided by league position: fifth, sixth and seventh. Only the team in sixth is Málaga, who have been banned from Uefa competitions next year, pending a CAS appeal. So the Europa League places would go down to eighth place. Only the team in eighth is Rayo Vallecano who have been denied a Uefa licence for next season. So, pending an appeal etc and so on, the final place goes down to the team in ninth. Which is Sevilla, a team that won only one away game all season. So, those three places then: Valencia (5th), Betis (7th), Sevilla (9th). With a great big asterisk.
Pichichi, top scorer: Messi (46), Ronaldo (34), Falcao (28), Negredo (25), Soldado (24)
Zamora, top goalkeeper: Thibault Courtois
Copa del Rey winners: Atlético Madrid