Written by Alex Brotherton
On 23rd August 2020, exactly 372 days after it had begun, the 2019/20 Segunda División season came to a dramatic conclusion. As the Elche players wheeled away in celebration after scoring a 96th-minute winner against Girona in the play-off final second leg, the contrast between the elation and anguish felt by the two sets of players mirrored the season as a whole; it’s a year that will never be forgotten, for the exhilarating highs but mainly the pain and suffering caused by Covid-19. Elche now have less than three weeks to prepare for the start of the new LaLiga season, where they will join fellow promoted sides Huesca and Cadiz. Here’s what you need to know about LaLiga’s latest newcomers.
When it came to winning the title, SD Huesca, from the city of the same name in the autonomous community of Aragon, pulled off a real smash-and-grab. At no point during the season did they sit top of the pile, but come the end of matchday 42 that’s exactly where they were. With two games of the season remaining, they trailed first place Cádiz by five points. A final day win at Sporting Gijón ensured they pipped their Andalusian challengers to the title by a point.
Next season will only be Huesca’s second ever in LaLiga, having spent much of their existence in the regional fourth tier. They made a good impression in their debut top-flight campaign in 2018/19, with their plucky performances and fiercely loyal support, but ultimately could not avoid relegation.
In their first season back in Segunda, Huesca were inconsistent and didn’t look like title contenders; when Covid-19 halted play after 31 games, Míchel’s side were fourth, six points off top spot, and come the end of the season they’d suffered 14 defeats, more than any other side in the top 11. Their dismal away form was illustrated by losses to relegation strugglers Deportivo La Coruña and Racing Santander; if the league table only accounted for away results, Huesca would’ve finished 21st.
But while they struggled on the road, they made El Alcoraz a fortress. On home soil Huesca won 15 out of 21, with only three defeats. Promotion rivals Almería, Zaragoza, Elche and Girona were seen off, and a point taken off Cádiz. In the title run-in, while those around them failed to hold their nerve and deliver consistently, Huesca won five of their last seven games to take the crown. As football journalist Mark Sochon explains, it was very much a collective effort.
“After a turbulent year in LaLiga, Míchel came in and steadied the ship. While they’ve rarely been spectacular this season, they built their promotion bid on the back of their strong home record and by having a clear identity."
“While obviously Shinji Okazaki’s 12 league goals were important, it’s been a real team effort without any truly standout players. Huesca’s promotion has been a triumph for the team unit approach, over the individual talents boasted by the likes of Almería, Girona and Zaragoza.”
But while it was Huesca that actually won the division, it was Cádiz’ return to LaLiga that dominated the headlines. Widely regarded as a well-run club, with good-humoured fans and based in a uniquely stunning Andalusian city, the end of Cádiz’ 14-year absence from the top flight was welcomed by supporters across Spain.
Unlike their Aragonese counterparts, for much of the season Cádiz looked nailed on for the title, never mind automatic promotion. Ever since matchday eight, barring a week in January spent joint-top with Almería, they led the pack, and it wasn’t until promotion was virtually assured that three straight defeats scuppered hopes of finishing first. The late capitulation took a little gloss off a dream season, but Cádiz fans won’t be overly concerned; just four years ago their team were in the third division, and their rise since then has been extraordinary.
In April 2016, during their sixth consecutive season in Segunda B, Cádiz’ promotion push was stalling after four games without a win. To arrest the slide, Álvaro Cervera was appointed manager, and he subsequently led the club through the play-offs and up into the second tier.
Play-off heartbreak in 2017 was followed by two mediocre campaigns, but this year everything seemed to fall into place. As Mark explains, it was Cadiz’ mental toughness and resilience that gave them the advantage over more attractive, style-focused sides.
“Very early on, a belief set in that this was going to be the year they kicked on to become genuine promotion contenders. Five straight wins to open the season set them apart from the rest, but even then, they relied on goals in the 90th minute or later in three of those.
“They showed an ability to respond well to adversity; from December they won only seven of 25 league games, but the wheels never truly came off and they managed to brush themselves down and focus on the task at hand.”
There is no doubt that Cádiz’ promotion will enrich LaLiga. The club’s fans are regarded as some of the best in Spain, known for their joviality, imaginative chanting and the raucous atmosphere they create at the Nuevo Estadio Ramón de Carranza. Cádiz itself is a city of fun; each spring its famous carnival comes to town, while its beaches, amongst the best in the country, help create the image of a fun-loving seaside club.
Of course, Cádiz won’t be in LaLiga to make up the numbers. With the capture of the experienced Álvaro Negredo a sign of intent, and the likelihood of retaining the talents of Álex Fernández, Salvi Sánchez and Choco Lozano, Los Amarillos will be a force to be reckoned with.
If one lesson can be learned from Elche’s promotion, it’s to fight until the end and never give in. For much of the first half of the season they hovered around mid-table, and only started pushing for the play-offs in late January. When the Fuenlabrada coronavirus controversy erupted, pushing the game between Deportivo La Coruña and Fuenlabrada back almost three weeks after the other matchday 42 fixtures, Elche’s play-off dream looked over. The side from Alicante sat sixth, knowing that Fuenlabrada needed only to draw with already-relegated Dépor to squeeze them out of the running. Thanks to a 95th-minute penalty winner for Dépor, they made it by the skin of their teeth.
In the play-offs, late goals became a theme. Club legend Nino scored a late penalty in the semi-final second leg against Real Zaragoza, eliminating the side that had beaten them home and away during the regular season. After a goalless first leg in the final against Girona, Elche knew they had to score; a second 0-0 draw would see the Catalonian side promoted by virtue of a higher league finish. It wasn’t until the 96th minute that substitute Pere Milla headed home at the far post to turn an unlikely dream into reality.
After suffering the embarrassment of being demoted from LaLiga in 2015 due to financial irregularities (they had finished 13th), the road to redemption has been tough. A relegation to Segunda B in 2017 followed, but that’s where the hard work began. Under coach Pacheta they bounced back at the first attempt, and have now followed last season’s solid return to the second division with another promotion. Pacheta joins Asier Garitano and Vicente Moreno as coaches who in recent years have taken teams from the third tier to the first in three years or fewer.
Perhaps the most inspiring story to come out of this is that of Nino, the aforementioned club legend. At 40 years of age, it’s 22 years since the captain made his professional debut for his boyhood club. While he did spend 10 years away, playing for the likes of Levante, Tenerife and Osasuna, he returned to the Estadio Martínez Valero in 2016, staying loyal after the relegation to Segunda B to help start the comeback. His late goal in the play-off semi-final was his eighth of the season, but by no means is it likely to be his last in green and white. Fighting back the tears after the final, he said: “everyone who knows me knows what this club means to me. I’ve been praying for this moment for two weeks, it seemed so far away but we’ve done it.”
With the 2020/21 LaLiga season fast approaching, Pacheta and his staff may have their work cut out. Bound by limited resources, Elche had one of the weaker squads in Segunda this season, and not one of the younger ones. But as La Liga Lowdown contributor Sam Leveridge explains, there is hope:
“Pacheta has done an incredible job at Elche, built around defensive solidarity and togetherness. In four play-off matches they didn’t concede a single goal, a testament to their organisation and spirit. There are plenty of comparisons to make with the promotion-winning Leganés side of 2016, in terms of limited resources and an ageing squad.”
Many will write Elche off this season, the team that shouldn’t have really made the play-offs at all. But they have shown in this run-in that they can take their chances when they arise and they always fight to the very end – continue that in LaLiga and they’ve got a chance.
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