Levante’s celebrations after their last-gasp win over Las Palmas last week gave the impression of a team that knew that had all but secured La Liga status for another year.
That crucial victory over a relegation rival left them eight points clear of the drop zone, with seven games left to play. Although nothing was assured, survival was now very nearly within their grasp.
The Canarian side’s defeat more or less confirmed that they would be joining bottom side Málaga – who lost 3-2 to fellow relegation candidates Deportivo de La Coruña – in the Segunda División next season. Deportivo’s three points didn’t count for much given Levante’s victory, and they remained eight points adrift of safety.
It looked at that point like all was done and dusted in La Liga. We know who will be champions, we know will qualify for the Champions League, and now we knew who would be relegated.
But this weekend, a chink of light opened for Dépor. Clarence Seedorf’s side beat Athletic Club 3-2 at San Mamés, having scored with their only three shots on target. They held on to take the victory despite having to weather a second-half barrage from the home side, knowing that Levante had a tricky trip to Atlético Madrid the following day.
And tricky it proved to be for the Valencian side. Atlético showed their superiority with a comfortable 3-0 victory, the winning goal coming courtesy of the departing hero Fernando Torres. Now, all of a sudden, Levante’s position was not so comfortable. They wouldn’t have expected to beat Atlético, but they wouldn’t have banked on Deportivo winning two games on the bounce to narrow the gap to just five points.
On Tuesday night, Dépor had the chance to extend their winning streak and narrow the gap to just two points, which would pile the pressure onto Levante. Sevilla were the opponents at Riazor – a strong side, but one that has one eye on Saturday’s Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. If there was ever a good time to play them, it was now.
Dépor gave it a good go in a game that had plenty of chances for both sides, but it somehow ended 0-0. It was a respectable result for Seedorf’s side, but not one that really does them any favours.
Levante play Málaga on Wednesday night at Estadi Ciutat de València, and in all likelihood will pick up the three points, although there is no guarantee. If Málaga win, then Deportivo’s point with Sevilla will take on a much higher value. But if Levante win, then it looks as though Dépor’s mini-revival was a day late and a dollar short.
Levante manager Paco López, who has overseen a dramatic upturn in form since his appointment in March, acknowledges that their safety is not yet guaranteed. “There are still a lot of points to play for,” he said after the defeat to Atlético. He recognises that they must guard against complacency and not let the first defeat under his reign affect their confidence. “It depends on us. We have to focus on our work.”
For Seedorf, on the other hand, the key is to make sure his team fight for every point until the end of the season. The wins over Málaga and Athletic were the first under Seedorf, and the first for the club since they beat Leganés in December, a run stretching back 15 games. Now the players have tasted victory and know it can be done, they will have a renewed sense of belief.
For now, it’s very much in Levante’s hands. They have the four-point lead and the game in hand, and both sides have equally difficult run-ins; Dépor play Barcelona and Valencia, while Levante have to face Barcelona and Sevilla. Both sides face tricky trips to Balaídos to play Celta de Vigo.
After the draw with Sevilla, Deportivo striker Lucas Pérez said that they will fight to the very end of the season. He hasn’t given up hope, but he has called for a favour from an unlikely source – bitter rivals Celta, who will play Levante on the final day. “We hope that Celta can give us a hand on the final day. We will try to appeal to their Galician sentiment.” When you find yourself pleading for help from your fiercest rivals, you know you’re in trouble.
But as much as Levante are favourites to beat the drop, there is greater pressure on them than on Deportivo. They have survival in their hands, but they know they have left the door slightly ajar, and Dépor will try their best to creep in.