Two down and one to go in La Liga as five battle to avoid the drop

Rayo Vallecano and Huesca have been relegated leaving Girona, Valladolid, Levante, Villarreal and Celta Vigo fighting to stay up

In the sunshine in the far corner, Rayo Vallecano’s supporters put their arms around each others’ shoulders and sang. At which point, the Levante fans turned their way and started to applaud. Then some of them broke into song too. “El Rayo es de primera,” it ran – Rayo belong in the first division – but they don’t, not any more. “We all knew what this meant,” Levante manager Paco López said and by eight minutes to three on Saturday afternoon what it meant for his opponents was The End. At 8.27 the following evening, the first Sunday in May, that was confirmed when the whistle went on Real Valladolid’s 1-0 victory over Athletic, but they had known already: the last of the neighbourhood teams were down. Twenty minutes later, Huesca were joining them.

Effectively defeated by Valladolid’s win just before they took to the pitch on Sunday, aware that hope had gone, Huesca were a goal down to Valencia within two minutes, two down after a quarter of an hour, three down on 20, and four down on 32. By half time, it was five. Relegation, always there, had become a reality.

Pos Team P GD Pts
16 Levante 36 -8 40
17 Valladolid 36 -18 38
18 Girona 36 -14 37
19 Rayo Vallecano 36 -28 31
20 Huesca 36 -22 30

By the end, it was 6-2 and they too were saying goodbye: it had taken them 59 years to get to the first division and 348 days to leave again. With the clock on 91.31, the man who scored their first goal in primera scored with their last kick before relegation. Álex Gallar hit a perfect penalty, turned, and embraced the man who had let him take it. He and Chimy Ávila held each other silently, the embrace lingering as if they didn’t want to let go.

From around the Alcoraz came applause. It was over. With two weeks left, Girona (37), Valladolid (38), Levante (40), Villarreal (40) or Celta (40) could still go, five teams fighting to avoid the final relegation place. Below them, Rayo and Huesca have gone, nothing to fight for any more.

Promoted from the second division last season, they have gone straight back down, posing a question about the leap from segunda to primera, and they had always known that was likely right from the start. They are two of the three teams with the smallest budgets in the division – Valladolid is the other – and Rayo have only been out of the relegation zone once in the last 21 weeks while Huesca have been bottom every week but one for 28. When they met a fortnight ago, they played Russian roulette, knowing there was no other choice. On Sunday evening, it was done, no more maths or miracles.

Rayo didn’t need to wait that long; they already knew by Saturday lunchtime that they had lost their last chance. Their opponents, by contrast, knew that they had hold of some hope. This was “the final battle,” AS said, the weekend beginning with Levante-Rayo on Saturday at midday and ending with Huesca-Valencia on Sunday at 8.45pm, via Celta’s 2-0 win over Barcelona on Saturday night, Girona’s 2-0 defeat at Getafe at Sunday at noon, Villarreal’s 3-2 loss at Madrid at 4.15pm, and Valladolid’s victory over Athletic at 6.30pm.

Levante and Rayo were “at the gates of hell,” the headline in Marca had declared. There was no sign of Tom Petty – although there was plenty of heartbreak – but in the PA announcer’s room, someone stuck on Now That’s What I Call Metaphors 67, belting out (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Go My Own Way, and Highway to Hell. The Final Countdown boomed around. On every seat, there were red and blue flags, and the place was packed, 19,868 at the Ciutat de València. “It won’t be definitive,” López said, but it felt like it. And for Rayo, it was. In the end, they barely even rebelled, slipping away with surprisingly little fit.

“I’m convinced that if we win, we’ll survive,” Rayo manager Paco Jémez said. But his team were losing within 14 minutes, wide open, easily taken apart – “we make mistakes that you just can’t make in the first division,” he said – and on course for a real beating. Alberto García made a penalty save, his third in a row, his sixth from eight in the first division, but he couldn’t keep them out. Soon it was 2-0, and although Alvaro García got a goal back, although there was a brief reaction, two goals in the last five minutes ended it. As Rayo’s fans sang and bounced and clapped, their team was losing 4-1. The maths meant they weren’t officially down until the next day but it was done – only a four way tie on 37 points could save them. Asked if there was a chance, Jémez admitted: “I’m not convinced.”

Levante were. “The happiness is immense,” Levante forward José Luis Morales said, his eyes wide, tears fighting through, his voice breaking. “All the anger, all the tension, the pain, the pressure, all the suffering came out. It’s not over, but we’ve taken a huge step.”

Levante players celebrate during the 4-1 victory over Rayo.
Levante players celebrate during the 4-1 victory over Rayo. Photograph: Juan Carlos Cardenas/EPA

Afterwards, López said he would watch the rest of the weekend’s games, “but with the tranquillity of having won here”. And anyone who doubted what Alberto had said needed only to do the same on the weekend when two teams left and five more clung on. Unpacked and rationalised it may be absurd, but the emotion was raw and it was real, and this is what it is about.

It was everywhere: in the Coliseum, where Getafe – yes, Getafe – drew ever closer to the Champions League and Girona stared into the relegation zone. At Balaídos, where fireworks greeted Celta’s bus, where the Rianxeira rang out, and where there was joy as Celta lined up to give champions Barcelona a guard of honour, and then lined up to give their fans a photo at the end after a fourth successive home win. And at the Bernabéu where Villarreal manager Javi Callejainsisted: “it’s not over yet”.

Celta Vigo’s fans celebrate after the team beat Barcelona 2-0.
Celta Vigo’s fans celebrate after the team beat Barcelona 2-0. Photograph: Eliseo Trigo/EPA

Which it is not, not for those five. But for two of them it was. Huesca eventually rebelled against that 5-0 half time score, the first time in six months when they had looked like they didn’t belong, determined to bring things to a dignified end. If they have taken nothing else from the first division, they have at least built a community, an identity. The supporters applauded, no reproach and no regrets, chanting the club’s name and pleading with the manager to continue. On the touchline, captain Gonzalo Melero struggled to get his words out, eventually saying: “it hurts for them.”

Everybody hurts. Before Alcoraz, there was the José Zorrilla, where fates were decided; where Valladolid’s victory over Athletic sunk Huesca, mathematically sent Rayo down, put Girona into the relegation zone, and meant that Celta, Villarreal and Levante aren’t safe yet. Where Waldo Rubio, the former B-teamer starting for only the fourth time, ran from inside his own half and scored a belting goal to give them the lead, life to hold onto. And where TV cameras immediately zoomed in close, too close, to a man in the crowd with head back, eyes screwed shut and tears trying to force a way through. Where Athletic took control and nerves took Valladolid, the last 15 minutes unbearable. And where the final whistle was a release, as if the grip was finally loosened on their throats.

And so, they roared. “Yes, we can!” ran the chant. “People thought we were dead but we’re more alive than ever. Of course we can, just as the fans say. It fills me with pride to see the stands here like this,” Waldo said.

In the hours before the match, Valladolid’s players’ families decorated the changing room, preparing them for the biggest game of the season: football isn’t just 11 men, it is all of them. They made collages, left messages on lockers: you’re stronger than you think, never give up. They cut out hearts, made a team sheet all of their own, their children drew pictures, and wrote to them in multi colours.

El Valladolid es de primera,” one read and on the night Rayo and Huesca bade farewell they, like four others, were still there, battling to belong.

Talking points

• Sevilla’s 3-0 loss at home to Leganés puts the final Champions league place within reach of Getafe, who are already guaranteed a European place – which is a hell of an achievement. They need four points from the last two games to guarantee that. But it’s not done yet.

• Gareth Bale was not even in the Madrid squad on Sunday, which Zidane insisted wasn’t a message, but which looked pretty much like one.

• You rest basically every potential starter – no Messi, Suárez, Busquets, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Piqué, Alba, and the rest – and the one that you don’t rest goes and gets injured. Ousmane Dembélé is probably out for the season.

Results

Huesca 2-6 Valencia, Valladolid 1-0 Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid 3-2 Villarreal, Eibar 1-0 Real Betis, Getafe 2-0 Girona, Celta Vigo 2-0 Barcelona, Alavés 0-1 Real Sociedad, Espanyol 3-0 Atlético Madrid Levante 4-1 Rayo Vallecano, Sevilla 0-3 Leganés

Remaining fixtures

May 12 

Athletic Bilbao v Celta Vigo, Atlético Madrid v Sevilla, Barcelona v Getafe, Girona v Levante, Leganés v Espanyol, Rayo Vallecano v Valladolid, Real Betis v Huesca, Real Sociedad v Real Madrid, Valencia v Alavés, Villarreal v Eibar

May 19 

Alavés v Girona, Celta Vigo v Rayo Vallecano, Eibar1 v Barcelona, Espanyol v Real Sociedad, Getafe v Villarreal, Huesca v Leganés, Levante v Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid v Real Betis, Real Valladolid v Valencia, Sevilla v Athletic Bilbao

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 36 52 83
2 Atletico Madrid 36 26 74
3 Real Madrid 36 21 68
4 Getafe 36 15 58
5 Valencia 36 12 55
6 Sevilla 36 13 55
7 Athletic Bilbao 36 -4 50
8 Real Sociedad 36 -1 47
9 Espanyol 36 -6 47
10 Alaves 36 -10 47
11 Eibar 36 -3 46
12 Leganes 36 -3 45
13 Real Betis 36 -11 44
14 Celta Vigo 36 -7 40
15 Villarreal 36 -4 40
16 Levante 36 -8 40
17 Valladolid 36 -18 38
18 Girona 36 -14 37
19 Rayo Vallecano 36 -28 31
20 Huesca 36 -22 30