Thursday night in La Liga was particularly eventful. Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid sealing a 34th top flight crown with a 2-1 win over Villarreal dominated the headlines, as it probably should, but events at the bottom were quite breathtaking, too.
Leganes, on an unforeseen unbeaten run at the epilogue of the campaign, were massive beneficiaries of teams in and around them all losing on the penultimate gameweek of the season. Real Mallorca were beaten 2-1 at home by Granada, Celta Vigo fell 3-2 on home turf to Levante and Real Valladolid lost 3-1 at Eibar.
The Cucumber Growers defeated Athletic Club 2-0 at San Mames, rising to 18th in the table at the expense of a now-relegated Mallorca, and sit a sole point behind Celta on 35 points. Desperation sometimes brings out the best or worst in people, and Javier Aguirre’s team have cobbled a fine run together at the death to revive a campaign that was ostensibly petering out after a 3-0 defeat by Sevilla on June 30.
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Fast forward a fortnight, and Lega have picked up 10 points from a possible 12, with successive wins against Valencia and Bilbao especially impressive. Having secured four points from two games vs Espanyol and Eibar, both in the bottom half of the standings, the expectation was for Aguirre’s troops to falter against sides in the top 10, ergo confirming relegation.
However, the side from the outskirts of Madrid have gone from failing to win in six games after the lockdown was lifted, to claiming three wins in four games.
Nigerian pair of Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem have played little part in the recent unblemished run, although the latter did feature in the 1-0 rearguard action against Los Che on Sunday.
At home to the eighth-placed side, Awaziem was largely solid in the air to withstand the barrage from the visitors who ramped up the pressure after Jonathan Silva’s sending off with 36 minutes to play. There was a fine penalty stop by Ivan Cuellar on the hour, but the Porto loanee played his part in the success, too.
Awaziem cleared the ball away from danger five times, only Rodrigo Tarin with six had more in the backline, while he won five out of seven total duels on the day at a success rate of 71 percent, superior to next highest Dimitrios Siovas’ 55 percent (five successful duels from nine).
Indeed, that showing on his return to the XI ought to have earned him a place in the line-up on Thursday night, however, a yellow card in the second minute of stoppage time saw the on-loan centre-back miss out through suspension vs Athletic Club.
Perhaps, even more surprising was Omeruo’s absence in that 2-0 success. Admittedly, the former Chelsea man only just returned from an injury he sustained in that demoralising loss at the hands of Sevilla, still his form before the layoff was arguably the best in Aguirre’s backline.
If anything, securing that win and a fourth clean sheet on the bounce indicates that the Mexican boss has stumbled on the right defensive shape in the final weeks of the season. Case in point is how, despite a run of sketchy performances before Leganes’ fine form, Awaziem didn’t look out of place on his return to the side.
In truth, it’s a tad ironic that Aguirre’s defensive trio in three of the four recent clean sheets – Siovas (LCB), Tarin (CB) and Unai Bustinza (RCB) – have come about by chance, with Omeruo’s injury and Awaziem’s decline in form, as opposed to by design.
Thus, it remains to be seen whether the 61-year-old manager will reinstate either or both for this weekend’s make-or-break encounter with...champions Real Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane’s charges’ won their 10th Liga game on the spin since football returned, to claim only their third Spanish top flight crown in 10 years, and a first since 2017.
The narrative before Sunday’s meeting would probably have been different had Los Blancos failed to claim the title against Villarreal in the penultimate gameweek of the campaign. However, the unwitting tendency of teams to drop-off in the immediate aftermath of success will motivate Aguirre’s side as they seek a third consecutive win over a top half side.
Of course, the superior quality of Real makes them favourites to send Leganes out of La Liga but having fought courageously in recent games, the home team won’t go down without a fight against the champions.
There’s also the small matter of needing the out-of-form Celta to lose at relegated Espanyol, the bottom side who have little to play for besides pride. Francisco Rufete’s side are winless in nine, including eight defeats on the trot, so recent evidence suggests there might be little change at the bottom on the final day.
Following Martin Braithwaite’s departure to Barcelona in late February, Los Pepineros were tipped to go down after their then-top scorer’s morally criticised transfer to Camp Nou. Oscar Rodriguez picked up the mantle to score five times since February, taking his tally to nine, but the Spanish attacking midfielder has been out since late June.
The attacker’s absence further puts the Cucumber Growers’ late run in perspective as no player has hit the back of the net more than once all season. Their four strikes in as many games have all come from different goalscorers, and it’s a surprise they’ve held on this long after many wrote them off months ago.
If Leganes are successful against the champions this Sunday, Aguirre will be crowned a hero for rescuing a seemingly sinking ship. The pair of Awaziem and Omeruo, despite their recent non-involvement, will have played a part in the club’s great escape, too.
Conversely, relegation will leave the Nigerians pondering what the immediate future holds in a pandemic-hit universe.