Leganés’ Annus Horribilus

All smiles early in the campaign

This is something which doesn’t give me any pleasure to write.

Ever since I moved to Madrid, I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for Leganés. They play in the right colours, they have a lovely compact stadium with excellent sunsets and cheap tickets, their sandwiches are great and of course they have the one and only Cucumber Knight – Super Pepino himself.

But this season has been a disaster from start to finish for los pepineros.

Stalled on the Starting Grid

Leganés’ troubles this season can be traced right back to their opening game of the campaign as they hosted newly-promoted Osasuna at Butarque. 

Pretty much anything that could have gone wrong in that opening game did go wrong.

Los Pepineros had three goals ruled out in the second half, two from Youssef En-Nesyri for offsides either side of a Martin Braithwaite effort chalked off for a handball in the build-up. En-Nesyri also hit the upright and Lega were denied by a series of great saves from Osasuna goalkeeper Ruben. 

Then in the 75th minute, Chimy Avíla scored the only goal of the game with a fine curling shot from outside the box. 

To add insult to injury, Óscar was sent off in injury time.

The following two weeks saw slightly unfortunate defeats at the hands of Atlético and Betis, but after the international break they suffered a heavy defeat by Villarreal. Four games down, three of them at home, and zero points on the board.

The End For Pellegrino

Levante take the lead at Butarque

Lega did pick up a couple of points with credible draws against Valencia and Athletic Club but were still without a league win when Levante arrived in town at the beginning of October and coincidentally, I made my return to Butarque for the new season. 

And it was another one of those days for Leganés which summed up their abject season. 

Levante took the lead through a penalty which looked slightly dubious at the time and after the game it emerged that a breakdown in communication between the VAR room and the officials had prevented any review of the tackle from Dmitris Sivoas on Roger Martí, which appeared to be outside the area and not really a foul to begin with.

Then the second half had barely started when goalkeeper Juan Soriano allowed José Campaña’s free kick to sail over his head and double Levante’s lead. Braithwaite lobbed Aitor Fernandez to get Lega back in it but the Levante goalkeeper got his revenge when he kept out the Danish forward’s penalty.

A crazy finish to the match saw Soriano operating as a centre forward and he was denied a last-gasp equaliser as Fernandez blocked his goalbound shot with his legs in stoppage time.

Following the end of the game, the Leganés fans sang the name of manager Mauricio Pellegrino. The previous season he had led them to their highest ever finish despite a bad start, but it was clear that time was running out.

The following week, after a defeat by Getafe, Pellegrino offered his resignation. 

Aguirre’s Revival

Luis Cembranos, the manager of Leganés’ B team, was placed in temporary charge and he actually recorded the team’s first win of the campaign, picking up a vital three points against relegation rivals Mallorca thanks to a Braithwaite goal, but the club was searching for a permanent replacement. After being turned down by a number of other candidates who either had their eyes on bigger jobs potentially coming up, or felt Lega were already as good as relegated, they turned to Javier Aguirre.

The Mexican coach had years of experience in La Liga, having previously coached Osasuna, Atlético Madrid, Zaragoza and Espanyol as well as managing his country at the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. His fantastically sweary press conferences are always entertaining. But most importantly, he had an immediate impact on their fortunes.

Celebrations against Barcelona 

In his first game, they went to Anoeta and took a point off Champions League chasing Real Sociedad. The following week they took on champions Barcelona and gave them an almighty scare, taking the lead early on and only just slipping to defeat after running out of steam in the second half. Then came a narrow defeat by Sevilla. But they were competing again and the month of December would see them face a run of fixtures against their direct rivals in the bottom half. 

First they beat Celta at home. Goals from Óscar (2) and Kévin Rodrigues gave them a 3-0 lead and they survived a late comeback to pick up a 3-2 win. Next up, a point away to Alavés, which could have been all three – the Basque side’s leveller was slightly suspect – and then in the last game before Christmas, a huge 2-0 win over Espanyol with goals from Braithwaite and En-Nesyri, which lifted them off the bottom of the table. Things were looking up going into 2020!

En-Nesyri Exits

En-Nesyri pictured before the Barcelona game

Yousseff En-Nesyri has been one of the breakout stars of Leganés’ 2018/19 season. The Moroccan forward was their top scorer and at times looked like a star in the making.

During summer 2019 there was plenty of interest in him but Leganés held firm to their valuation when they perhaps should have taken the money and invested it during the summer transfer window. For much of the first half of the season En-Nesyri looked like someone whose head had been turned and didn’t want to be at Butarque any more. 

He did play a part in the early revival under Aguirre, scoring the equaliser which earned a point in San Sebastián, the opener in the unfortunate defeat against Barcelona and then the game-clinching second against Espanyol. But there was always the worry that once the January transfer window opened, there would definitely be offers coming in.

And so it proved, Sevilla came in with a bid which matched the buy-out clause and on 16th January, they announced En-Nesyri had signed a contract with them until June 2025. Leganés were around €20m better off financially but finding a good-value replacement for one of their top players would be a big challenge.

Derby Disaster

A bad night at the office

As if the departure of En-Nesyri wasn’t bad enough, Lega now had to face their local rivals Getafe. 

The South Madrid Derby is typically a full-blooded affair and the home supporters gave the team bus a rapturous reception as they arrived at the stadium. 

With Getafe suffering a bit of a dip in form and having just been knocked out of the cup by Badalona, Leganés saw an opportunity to continue their revival. But once the first whistle went, they froze and were taken apart by their arch-rivals who were simply sharper and more dynamic in every area of their game. 

Poor marking from a corner allowed Leandro Cabrera to head in the opener after 12 minutes and then nine minutes later former Leganés player Allan Nyom climbed highest to head in Marc Cucurella’s cross and then stopped just short of running round the entire stadium to celebrate – he was subbed off ten minutes later as he was on a booking and his boss, José Bordalás, obviously felt his, ahem, over-exuberance would make a second one inevitable.

A third goal arrived before the break to kill the game in a tragicomic fashion. Two Lega defenders collided while going for the same ball near the halfway line allowing Jorge Molina to run through on goal where he unselfishly squared the ball to strike partner Jaime Mata for a tap-in.

The second half was played out in front of a gradually emptying Butarque as Getafe toyed with their victims. Molina and Mata looked like they had the home defence on a string, pulling them all over the pitch at will and but for some fine last-ditch defending, the margin of victory could have been far greater. 

It was a humbling defeat for Leganés and one which could have triggered a total collapse. But to their credit, they dug in and the following week ground out a 0-0 draw against Atlético at the Wanda. Then they came from a goal down to defeat Real Sociedad with a 94th minute winner from Óscar. A defeat at Levante and 0-0 draw with Betis left them just two points from safety, before another crisis came along to give them another kick in the teeth.

Bye Bye Braithwaite

Braithwaite in action earlier in the season

Without En-Nesyri, Leganés’ hopes were now more than ever pinned on Martin Braithwaite. With six goals, he was their leading goalscorer and the focal point of their attack. And he should have been through until the end of the season, but for circumstances beyond Leganés’ control.

These circumstances came about when Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele was ruled out for the rest of the season through injury, around the same time that Luis Suarez required surgery on a long-standing injury which would also rule him out until the final weeks of the campaign. La Liga rules allow clubs in this situation to sign a replacement player as long as they are out of contract or with another Spanish club. So we endured several weeks of Barcelona being linked with almost every forward player in Spain with a pulse, until they eventually decided that Braithwaite was the right man. 

His buy-out clause was €18m – a drop in the ocean for a club like Barcelona – and Braithwaite was keen to move, so the deal was finalised pretty quickly.

Of course, while the La Liga rules allowed this, Leganés were prevented from replacing Braithwaite. It sparked plenty of debate about the rule and how it tilts the balance in favour of the big clubs and the whole rule was shown up to be something of a sham later in the season when Celta’s reserve goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez was ruled out for the season and they used their emergency signing to bring in, erm, Nolito, who as a former Spanish international winger/forward didn’t really enhance their goalkeeping options too much.

Could you really blame Braithwaite for leaving? He got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for Barcelona in the same team as Messi and probably a bit of a pay-rise too. How many people in that position would choose to stay at the relegation-threatened team?

Meanwhile Lega soldiered on, losing at Celta and drawing at home to Alavés, both games they could have done with winning. Then on Sunday 8th March, they came from behind to record a vital win over Villarreal. With key games against some relegation rivals coming up, they had hope again.

Lockdown

But before they could build any momentum from that win, everything changed.

The Corona Virus had been in the news for several weeks as it spread from China to Europe with devastating effects, particularly in Italy. But life in Spain carried on much as normal until a massive spike in cases in the second week of March. Initially it was announced that La Liga would continue, with matches being played behind closed doors, but after a positive test at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground, the league fixtures were cancelled and on 14th March, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a nationwide state of alarm and put all of Spain into lockdown.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit Leganés as a city very badly. No municipality anywhere else in Spain recorded as many cases of the virus as it did and the Severo Ochoa hospital was close to being overwhelmed.

The club did plenty to further their reputation as one of La Liga’s good guys during the pandemic. Fitness coach Pol Llorente live-streamed daily workout routines for fans at home, the club made a point of phoning up elderly supporters, an appeal raised €250,000 for the Severo Ochoa Hospital and they offered fans a free season ticket renewal for next season as compensation for the games forced behind closed doors as a result of the pandemic.

When football returned to Butarque on Saturday 13th June, only 18 seats in the stadium were occupied, filled with a bouquet of flowers and a Leganés shirt bearing the name of a season ticket holder who had died during the pandemic. 

Sliding Towards Inevitability 

When La Liga finally returned in June, Leganés were thrown straight into a must-win game. Real Valladolid were one of the few teams they had a realistic chance of overtaking if they were to stay up.

So it probably wasn’t a good idea to gift them a goal with barely a minute on the clock.

Chidozie Awaziem attempted to head the ball back to Pichu Cuellar, but the Leganés number one was well out of his goal and in the confusion Enes Ünal nipped in to open the scoring. They fell further behind early in the second half and a late penalty converted by Óscar wasn’t enough to rescue a point.

Indeed during the course of the match, Óscar earned himself a booking which ruled him out of the midweek trip to Barcelona and as a result, Leganés ended up naming a starting line-up featuring one player who had scored a goal for them this season – and Roque Mesa had only one to his name. There were more Leganés goals sitting on Barça’s bench (Braithwaite’s eight) than in their entire matchday squad (four) and unsurprisingly it ended in another defeat.

The following game against Mallorca was really a must-win, but they could only draw – a result secured by Óscar’s superb free kick, but he picked up an injury and wasn’t deemed fit enough to start the next game against Granada but an injury to Carillo saw him brought on after 22 minutes. He played the rest of the first half but didn’t come back out after the restart and without their set piece specialist, Miguel Guerrero was handed the responsibility when Lega were awarded a penalty on 65 minutes, which he missed. Óscar would miss the next six games.

With En-Nesyri and Braithwaite gone, Óscar picked up the mantle of leading the team

Taking It Down To The Wire

Back-to-back defeats by Osasuna and Sevilla left Leganés in a seemingly desperate situation. Nine points from safety with five matches remaining. From now on they were treading on a knife edge, all it would take was one slip-up, plus other results to go the wrong way, for their Primera adventure to come to an end.

Their prospects were improved by winning 1-0 at Espanyol the following weekend (a result which all-but condemned the Catalan club to relegation themselves) but a 0-0 draw at Eibar, a match so lacking in entertainment that the Basque side’s coach José Luis Mendilibar said the only good thing he could think to say afterwards was that no one had paid to watch it, was something of a missed opportunity to put pressure on one of their rivals.

A 1-0 victory over an utterly shambolic Valencia, complete with an excellent penalty save from Pichu Cuellar, despite playing most of the second half with ten men, kept their hopes alive going into a crucial game in Bilbao, where incidentally they had won in 2017 to secure their La Liga status at the end of their first season in the top flight.

On this occasion, they needed a bit of help, the early red card for goalkeeper Unai Simon which left Athletic playing with ten men for most of the contest, but it still took until the 79th minute for them to break through, Guerrero scoring his first of the season at a vital time. Another on-loan forward, Ivorian Roger Assalé added a second deep into stoppage time. Meanwhile Alavés secured their safety by beating Real Betis and a home defeat by Granada sealed Mallorca’s fate. Only Celta remained for Lega to overtake, after they were beaten at home by Levante.

So it was going down to the final day. Leganés had to defeat newly-crowned champions Real Madrid, while hoping that Espanyol would do them a favour and take something against Celta.

Things didn’t get off to a great start, Sergio Ramos put Madrid ahead in the first half, but Bryan Gil levelled in stoppage time. Meanwhile in Barcelona, it was still 0-0, the hosts having a goal disallowed because the ball had come off the referee in the build-up.

Aguirre went for it at half time, bringing on Guerrero and Óscar, back from injury in time to face his parent club, for the final 45 minutes of the season to try and get the win, but they looked dead and buried when Asensio scored on 52 minutes. However, Assalé’s second goal in as many games pulled them level on 78 minutes and set the scene for a grandstand finale.

Then the controversy. While defending a Lega attack, Luka Jovic controlled the ball with his arm inside the area. By the letter of the law, it’s a clear penalty, but the referee didn’t even make use of the pitchside monitor to take a look himself, instead going with the VAR team’s decision of no penalty.

Then with the seconds ticking away, Óscar created an opening for himself with a jinking run, he cut inside to unleash a trademark shot, but spooned it off-target. And the chance was gone. When the final whistle wet, the players collapsed to the ground inconsolable. They’d given everything they had, but it still wasn’t enough.

Club captain Unai Bustinza was almost unable to speak during his post-match interview, such was the emotion of the situation. 

After four seasons, the dream was over.

Things Can Only Get Better?

So can Leganés put this season behind them and return to La Liga?

It’s hard to say as they’ll be dropping into a fiercely competitive Segunda which features a lot of big clubs, all with larger reputations and larger budgets than Lega.

There’ll obviously be changes to the playing staff. Óscar has proved himself as a good La Liga player and Real Madrid will likely want him to further his development at another top flight club, the other on-loan players are likely to leave too and even some of those on permanent contracts may find offers coming in for them as Leganés readjust to life in the Segunda.

And they will be looking for a new coach after the club confirmed on Monday afternoon that Aguirre would not be staying on to lead them in the Segunda. 

What is sure, is that once fans are allowed to return to matches, I’ll be going back to Butarque. It’s one of my favourite grounds and Lega are such a friendly, welcoming club. That will continue, regardless of what league they are in. 

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