Segunda Play-offs: what on earth has happened and what the hell is happening now?
This has not been a normal end to a season. Everyone knows that. The coronavirus pandemic has caused horrendous suffering and pain to families, businesses and society as a whole. Football was rightly put on the side-line for a while. But with decreasing cases and lockdown restrictions easing, football found its way back. LaLiga was completed efficiently and effectively, and the organisers took their deserved plaudits.
But then on the final day of the Segunda regular season, with plenty still to play for, Fuenlabrada declared they had a spate of positive Covid-19 cases among their group. This meant their last game at Deportivo La Coruña was postponed. This was probably the match with the greatest amount riding on it too: Dépor were trying to avoid relegation to the third tier, while Fuenla knew that they would make the play-offs with a draw. Despite calls to postpone the entire matchday to enable the fixtures to be played out simultaneously and protect the integrity of the competition, the remaining matches did get the green light and were played out. Dépor’s rivals got the results they needed, so 20 years after being crowned champions of Spain, the Galicians fell to the third tier of the pyramid. In the hours and days that followed, a range of clubs issued ‘comunicados officiales’ relentlessly. Fuenlabrada's Twitter feed looked as if there must have been a glitch, such was the prevalence of the similar-looking tweets. Deportivo were fuming, claiming the competition had been “adulterated”. Rayo Vallecano too, as they hoped for a play-off spot. In truth, both clubs would have missed their objectives whatever the result of a re-played game. Dépor were dependent on other results, which went against them, and Rayo saw Elche finish above them anyway. Any suggestion of re-playing the whole matchday for equal opportunity is a valid one, but arguing that different outcomes would have occurred is merely hypothetical, and probably would not stand up to judicial scrutiny.
Fuenlabrada then said they would happily accept any resolution LaLiga decided upon. The organisation duly suspended the game by force majeure and declared Elche in the play-offs. Elche issued a statement of appreciation to Fuenla, as did LaLiga and their president Javier Tebas. But then the Madrid club appeared to contradict themselves by arguing that they had not given up their chance of the play-offs, and wanted to wait for the agreement of all authorities involved, from the Competition Committee to the Spanish Sport and Health Ministries. The Fuenlabrada playing squad then released their own separate statement. They declared their “indignation: at the chain of events, and declared they wanted to play against Dépor and continue their fight for promotion. One of the players included in this was Chico Flores, who was hospitalised with the virus after testing positive himself – another complicated layer to add to the chaos. Dépor were still angry and wanted the whole matchday replayed and even suggested Fuenla should be sent down administratively. Extremadura even got in on the action, arguing for all relegations to be suspended, despite being relegated long before the final day. It was getting very messy indeed. Time ticked on, the mess wasn’t getting untangled. Tuesday 28th July was another concerning day. Play-off sides Almería and Real Zaragoza both reported cases, and then Sevilla also announced that they had a positive case too, just a day after Real Madrid revealed Mariano Díaz had tested positive. Eventually, after many more declarations and counter-declarations, and despite Elche’s protestations, it was finally agreed that Deportivo and Fuenlabrada would indeed play their outstanding match – and a date was set for Wednesday 5th August. And yet, and yet…one of the worst soap operas still had time to script in another plot twist – another postponement by two days.
As for the game itself (of course behind closed doors at Riazor), Fuenlabrada took the lead as Pathé Ciss crashed the ball home in the 11th minute, and they held that sixth place in their own hands until almost the final kick of the game. Alarm bells should have been ringing in the 84th minute when Fuenla’s keeper Álvaro Rumiro opted to punch rather than catch a cross into the box, did so straight into the upper body of Claudio Beauvue, the ricochet taking the ball back past him into his own net for 1-1. A draw would have been enough, due to Fuenla’s superior head-to-head record with Elche. But just moments later, Dépor’s comeback was complete as the feintest of handballs by José Fran led to a penalty, converted clinically by Beauvue in the 95th minute to deny Fuenla the point they needed to finish inside the top six. Cruel and utterly crushing for the team who’d suffered so much. It means, however, that we have our final play-off four, all hoping they can join Cádiz and Huesca in the top flight next season. Real Zaragoza, a sleeping giant determined to return to LaLiga, finished third and were bitterly disappointed to miss out on automatic promotion. They were in the top spots when football was suspended, and stayed there despite losing form after the restart. They lost five of their last seven matches to fall out of the top two, and a final-day victory was not enough to catapult them back up there. They have been waiting to know the identity of their semi-final opponents, originally thinking it would be Fuenlabrada, but now it is Elche. To make matters worse for the Aragonese side, they will be without their best player and topscorer, Luis Suárez, after parent club Watford refused to allow him to stay on loan to complete the play-offs. Elche have been the footballing beneficiaries of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Fuenlabrada. They ended the season inside the top six and will therefore face off against Zaragoza. They are hoping for a return to the top flight for the first time since they were administratively relegated in 2015 under Fran Escribá. Their descent saved Eibar, who had finished 18th in their debut season in LaLiga. Elche have even been to the depths of Segunda B since then, winning promotion back to Segunda at the first time of asking in 2018. It would be a fairy-tale for their veteran forward Nino, who has scored seven goals this season and turned 40 last month. Turning to the other semi-final, Almería and Girona both sacked coaches in June ahead of the run-in, but Almería went one better and sacked another in July too! Having replaced Real Madrid legend Guti, Mário Silva was sacked and replaced with José Gomes, their fifth coach of the season. This represents staggering instability for a club with aspirations of promotion. Almería went down along with Elche in 2015 and have been in Segunda ever since.
As for their opponents, Girona will be hoping to join Barcelona as the Catalan contingent in LaLiga after Espanyol’s relegation. They are looking to emulate Huesca and bounce straight back up after just one season in Segunda. In striker Cristhian Stuani, they have the division’s topscorer, with an impressive 29-goal haul, ten strikes clear of his nearest challenger in the Segunda Pichichi. In truth, it was a surprise that he stayed at the club last summer, with many top flight clubs keen to secure his services. But to his credit, he showed loyalty and continued scoring to fire them to the play-offs. Their chances will depend heavily on his ability to continue this form over four more games. Whoever comes through their two-legged semi-finals and two-legged final will have an extremely tough task to stay up in LaLiga next season – not only will it then be only a few weeks until the 2020-21 campaign gets underway, but they’ll also have less time to recruit well in the transfer market. The Segunda campaign is often known to be a bit of a marathon – and it has proved even more so this year, albeit for extraordinary and horrific reasons. The end is finally in sight, though. Barring any more plot twists or postponements, on Sunday 23rd August, the season, at long last, will be over.
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