Sid Lowe reflects on a fantastic season for Eibar and all the latest action from Spain
Just over two years ago they were playing in Spain’s regionalised, eighty-team Second Division B and it is only seven months since they were relegated from the first division, yet somehow Eibar began the second half of the Spanish season in a European place.
Relegated on the final day of last season but reinstated in primera after Elche were relegated for their financial problems, the team with a stadium that holds 6,300 and is still too big, in a town of just 27,000, that is playing only its second ever season in the top flight, and whose most expensive player ever cost just 300,000 euros and is the only player in the team to have cost anything at all in transfer fees, Eibar are doing it again. Only this time it is different.
That, at least, is the hope. And it makes sense too.
Last season, Eibar finished the first half of the season in eighth place. It was, they said, a miracle and they were right. A team that were expected to go straight back down having reached the first division for the first time in their history, were the best Basque side in the division, head of historic sides Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, and were safe already.
Or so they thought. In the next seventeen games, they won just once. On the final day, they won again against already-relegated Córdoba. Because results went against them, it was not enough to keep them up, but Elche’s administrative relegation gave them a stay of execution and so they stayed up after all.
It was natural, then, that they did not want to get too excited when Eibar had another brilliant first half to this season. Last year’s memory hung heavily. But this year is different. And not just because the very fact that it happened once may just be the best reason to believe that it will not happen again — they are forewarned.
Eibar finished the first half of the season two places higher and three points better off for a start. They are a different team this time round: fourteen players are new and so is the manager: while last year’s success was based on a solid defence, results close — only once did they win by more than a solitary goal — this time they are creating plenty of chances and scoring goals.
And this time, rather than having to wait ten weeks for their first win of the segunda vuelta, they got it in the very first week. On Monday night, Eibar hammered Granada 5-1 with a brilliant performance at Ipurua, to return to a European place and move onto thirty-three points — in all probability just two wins from safety, within eighteen games to go.
It was their biggest win of the season, their biggest win ever in the first division, despite the fact that, according to their manager José Luis Mendilíbar, it wasn’t the best they have played this season. this season. He was right too, which is why this was also a victory that that underlines that they will have at least fifty-six more games to try to beat that record. At the end of the game, I Will Survive blared out at Ipurua. This time, no one doubts that they will..
“Unacceptable”, Gary Neville called it. Valencia’s first half performance against Rayo Vallecano was desperately bad, one that he admitted lacked “joy” and was “hard to explain”; they could barely pass the ball and were totally overrun by nineteenth placed, relegation candidates Rayo Vallecano. What should have been their first win under the new manager, against a team that had not picked up a victory in eight games and came without their first choice striker or goalkeeper, instead became another draw.
Twice Rayo lead, but it finished 2-2. That¹s six league games now without a victory for Neville..
He was happy with the way that Valencia had come back to draw, just as they had against Eibar, Getafe, and Real Madrid, but Neville admitted that he could not be happy with the way they played. Rayo’s coach Paco Jémez certainly wasn’t. His team had shot themselves in the foot again, dreadful errors costing them once more. It could even have been worse: Valencia had a perfectly good goal ruled out. But that would have been even more unfair. “Had they actually won it, I would have hung myself in the dressing room,” Jémez said. “You’d have found me dangling from my tie.”
“There are days when you feel sad because you have given football nothing. And there are other days when you think football is shit. The only team that did anything to deserve to win this game was Rayo,” Jémez added.
It was the perfect analysis and one that said much, about image and about reality.
At the end of Atlético’s 3-0 win at Las Palmas, the home team’s striker Jonathan Viera was asked a leading question that invited a certain type of response but he was not giving it. “Atlético get a lot without doing much….,” the question began. To which Viera shot back, respect infusing his every word: “It might not look like a lot from the outside, but on the inside it is. On the inside, it’s really bloody hard.”
Barcelona and Madrid may have scored well over a hundred goals between them this season but they’re not top; Atlético are. And while some begrudge them that, others are impressed. Rightly so: they have conceded fewer than any other team in Europe’s top divisions.
Another indication came on Monday night when Mendilíbar was asked about Eibar’s attack. “You’ve scored more goals in twenty league games than leaders Atlético,” the question began.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “And how many have they conceded.