Manuel Pellegrini sat in shadow and silence looking out across the pitch from the Mestalla bench, motionless. Deep down, the Málaga manager had probably anticipated something like this, just not quite like this. It was all so sudden. Hardly had the first goal gone in than the second followed, then the third, then the fourth. No time to react, no time to take it in. It was breathless and barely believable, so swift that some were suspicious. Blink and you'd miss it; show a replay and Spanish TV almost did. Four goals may never have been scored so fast; four vital goals too, goals that changed the landscape and probably reflected it too.
They say it only takes a second to score a goal. Which is true if all you count is the moment that the player shoots … and if the ball travels pretty quick. But it doesn't take two seconds to score two, what with the kick-off and those 50 yards to goal having a nasty habit of getting in the way: no one has ever won 5,400-0. Every British kid knows about Arbroath and Bon Accord and the 36-0; every Spanish kid knows about Athletic Bilbao beating Barcelona 12-1 , about Madrid defeating Barcelona 11-1 – but much more of that later – and about Spain scoring 13 against Malta. And every kid, or at least the sad ones, has wondered just how many goals you could get if you really did score every time you got the ball.
An answer came in October 2002 when AS Adema beat SO l'Emyrne 149-0, but even that didn't count because SOE spent the game scoring own goals; Adema didn't actually get the ball. So there was something a little childish and a lot geeky about this weekend when, for a brief moment, another answer was proposed. For a spell in the first half, Valencia versus Málaga turned into the perfect storm; or, to look at it from Málaga's perspective, the ultimate shipwreck. When Adil Rami brought the ball down on his chest and played a simple pass out of the Valencia defence, the scoreboard showed 24 minutes and 40 seconds, and 0-0. By the time it reached 30 minutes and 48 seconds, it showed 4-0. From Valencia's first goal, scored by Dani Parejo and their fourth, scored by Sergio Canales, five minutes and 55 seconds had passed. "Six minutes of Ché inspiration," cheered the headline in AS.
Six? Not even that. From Valencia's first it took one minute and 13 seconds for Málaga to kick off, then one minute and 31 seconds for them to score the second. It took 56 seconds for Málaga to kick off again, and 15 seconds for them to give the ball away, and for Canales to play a neat through-ball and Martin Demichelis to slide across and wipe out both Roberto Soldado then Ever Banega to concede a penalty. It took over a minute to take the penalty, and this time it really did take a second to score it, Soldado striking it hard and true into the corner, but then it took another 56 seconds for Málaga to kick off again. At which point, Málaga promptly played two passes, gave the ball away and conceded the fourth, 11 seconds after the restart.
It was some collapse: in total, from the first goal to the fourth, the ball had been in play for one minute and 58 seconds. In less than two minutes, Valencia had moved three points clear of Málaga and had even levelled the head-to-head goal difference, overturning the 4-0 from the Rosaleda. Next weekend, they travel to San Sebastián to face the other side that stands between them and a Champions League place: Real Sociedad, who sit two points ahead. They had helped lift the lid a little more on Málaga's problems while lowering the lid a little on their own. For now at least. Málaga's Champions league semi-final place had gone in barely two minutes; now their Champions league place for next season had gone just as quickly.
This weekend's match was fifth versus sixth at Mestalla, direct rivals for that final golden ticket. The club that cannot afford to be in next year's Champions League against the club that cannot afford not to be, both gripped by institutional and economic insecurity and clinging to the best thing they have: the team. Málaga, in theory at least, were fighting to clinch a place while they await their summer hearing at the court of arbitration for sport, seeking to overturn their ban from playing in European competition next season. As for Valencia, they need that place to survive.
Valencia are in trouble. Ernesto Valverde has turned them around, giving them pace and an attacking intent absent before, they are swift and aggressive, pressing high and going for teams. They have lost only three times in the league since he replaced Mauricio Pellegrino in December and he was negotiating a new deal with the president Manolo Llorente, happy to stay. But Llorente is no longer the president – he walked on 5 April 5 – and now Valverde, like everyone else, is in limbo. He may not continue and the same goes for the sporting director, plus many of the players. "It's such a mess, we don't know what's going to happen," says the captain, David Albelda.
Since taking on the debt owed to the failed bank Bankia, Valencia's owners, with 70% of the shares, are effectively the local government but they want to sell. The problem is that no one wants to buy a club with €400m debt and two stadiums – one they can't sell and one they can't afford to build but which costs them €400,000 a year to maintain. They do not want to buy a club where it costs them €15m a year in interest alone, a club where membership has dropped 13,000 in five years and where the best players always leave. "I'd like to see those smarty-pants do any better," said Llorente when he walked. Without Champions League football, and the €20m it guarantees, they would do a whole lot worse.
On Saturday night that looked possible at last, though. After a difficult season, Valencia have been climbing back up the table. And although Júlio Baptista got one back for Málaga, Ever Banega made it 5-1 to a backdrop of olés. This was a huge win. All founded on two mad minutes. Mestalla had not seen a night like it for months, maybe even years. Soldado called it "madness, a moment of ecstasy."
Over on the Málaga bench, Pellegrini looked stunned. Perhaps he shouldn't have been. Málaga's Champions League campaign brought everyone together in a common objective but their exit at the hands of Borussia Dortmund brought the underlying problems to the surface once more: this is a club where the money had dried up and so has the communication, where players and staff are pleading for answers, wanting to know what the future holds. Pellegrini's agent claimed that staff have not been paid and, bit by bit, there have been public hints and private remarks suggesting an internal crisis. Promises, Pellegrini warned on the eve of this game, have to be concrete facts, not words. Words have a habit of being meaningless.
Suggestions that this was deliberate are wide of the mark; this did not look like a protest. But that there was, at some subconscious level, little appetitive to fight for a place that they may not occupy and for an owner that has rarely stood by them, who has on occasions failed to pay them and disappeared when he was needed only to reappear and head to the dressing room to bask in the glory when they defeated Milan – there was something pointed about Joaquín insisting that night that the success was down to the players and the staff – could be considered inevitable. And afterwards, some players privately noted that: well, you know, with all that's going on …
Worse was to come. As if the relationship was not sufficiently strained, the following morning they found the finger pointing their way. His finger. The man who arrived as a saviour, spent over €100m buying the club and building the squad and then went incommunicado, leaving Málaga forced to sell and facing a ban from the competition they had just reached for the first time ever (and that is the most baffling thing of all: it is not like he didn't pour money in), looked for someone to blame.
Back home somewhere, many miles from Málaga, the owner, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani, was fuming. "Yesterday was a very bad day," he wrote on Sunday. "The team played without heart … I am sorry but this is the truth."
• Eric Abidal played. 90 minutes. Brilliant.
• Lies, damned lies and all that. As half-time approached, the possession stats in the Sevilla-Atlético match said something like 61%-39%. What they should have said was 0%-0%. This was a game in which the players were on the floor more than the ball: ugly, dirty and cheaty … and eventually settled by a Radamel Falcao goal. Still there was another marvellous [sic] performance by La Liga's cartoon bad guy, pantomime villain Diego Costa.
• This week's golazo, not for the first time, came from Valladolid's Ebert … the man that Atlético Madrid have been caught having lunch with. Mind you, Bruno Gama's goal for Depor was pretty tasty and so was Baptista's consolation against Valencia.
• A 2-0 win over Getafe now means that Espanyol are safe on 43 points in 10th place. Their turnaround under Javier Aguirre has been astonishing. So good, in fact, that there is now half a chance of them competing for a European place, currently only two points away from them. Except for one thing: they might not want to. Aguirre admitted afterwards that he would hold a team meeting and ask his players if they wanted to go for it or not. Or whether, by extension, they would be happier just to amble their way through the final six games of the season. "Is it really possible that the players will say to you: 'no, boss, we can't be bothered'?" he was asked. To which he replied: "After 37 years in football, I can tell you that anything's possible."
Results: Mallorca 1-1 Rayo, Granada 1-1 Valladolid, Real Madrid 3-1 Betis, Barcelona 1-0 Levante, Valencia 5-1 Málaga, Getafe 0-2 Espanyol, Deportivo 1-1 Athletic, Osasuna 0-0 Real Sociedad, Sevilla 0-1 Atlético. Tonight: Celta-Zaragoza