Almeria 2 Sevilla 3
The big question in La Liga on Saturday night was simple. Who would be heading for the Champions League? Would it be Sevilla, who travelled to Almeria, or Mallorca, at home to Espanyol, that clinched that crucial fourth place? With less than a minute of the season to go, it was one. Thirty seconds later, it was the other.
Sevilla began a topsy-turvy night on top. After fifteen minutes of intense pressure from the home side, former Tottenham man Fredi Kanoute used his loaf to divert a pinpoint Jesus Navas cross in off the post and put the visitors firmly in pole position. Halfway through the first half, Mallorca responded by also taking the lead through Victor. While understandably celebrating their opener, the Islanders would nevertheless miss the boat unless Almeria found the net.
To their credit, the hosts piled forward at every available opportunity in an attempt to end their season on a high note and keep things interesting. The livewire left-sided attacker Albert Crusat kept Sevilla’s Lithuanian loanee right-back Marius Stankevicius busy throughout the first half as Almeria dominated for long spells.
They simply could not find a finish though and Kanoute’s precise header only served to highlight the difference in class at the business end of the pitch. Sevilla, so often reliant on their clinical strikers to hide deficiencies elsewhere, had the lead they needed. But not for long.
Just moments before half time, the home side finally found the finish they had been lacking. Juanma Ortiz found space down the Almeria left and cut the ball back to the penalty spot. Fernando Soriano waited, waited and then celebrated after smashing a brilliant first-time shot across Andres Palop into the far corner. The whistle soon went and Mallorca were three quarters of an hour away from Champions League football.
How their fans must have enjoyed those twenty minutes or so. They certainly should have done. Within minutes of the restart on the mainland, fourth place changed hands again when Diego Capel darted crossfield and found Navas whose cross went in off Almeria defender Chico under pressure from his former-team mate Alvaro Negredo.
The Sevilla striker failed to last the full ninety on his return to his old stamping ground though, managing to get himself sent off in bizarre circumstances. Negredo’s dismissal, for dissent to a linesman, provided a twist to the tale just as the visitors seemed to be threatening a killer third goal. Antonio Alvarez opted to switch Diegos, bringing Perotti on for Capel, but continued with Kanoute as a lone striker despite the burly presence of Luis Fabiano on the bench.
With thirteen minutes left, a spectacular goal from Mario Suarez gave Mallorca a two-goal cushion over Espanyol and applied extra pressure to Alvarez’s side. Moments later, it told. They were probably unaware of Suarez’s strike but they could nevertheless have done little about the goal that hauled Almeria level for the second time.
Juanma Ortiz, provider of the first, decided instead to aim directly for goal when cutting inside from his left flank with little over ten minutes remaining. From fully thirty yards, the ball arrowed into the top corner with just enough bend to make Palop’s task impossible. It was a remarkable strike on a remarkable night that looked set to end Sevilla’s fight. Both Juanma and Jose Ortiz went close on the counter attack as the home side piled forward in search of a winner.
The board was raised for four minutes of added time. Fabiano, bafflingly, stayed on the bench as Sevilla twice forced late corners which both came to nought and Negredo’s indiscretion seemed sure to have ended the hopes of Los Rojiblancos. The one striker that did remain on the pitch, the goalscorer Kanoute, failed to convert the penultimate opportunity.
The last chance fell to teenage substitute Rodri. Incredibly, he seized it to send the small travelling support wild and Mallorca crashing out of the Champions League qualification places with forty-five seconds of their season to go. Navas again did excellently to provide the chance but Rodri’s acrobatic volley at full stretch was barely believable.
On the island, the Mallorca players sat cross-legged on the pitch watching their dreams die in front of them on a video screen in their stadium. The sense of drama was staggering. Sevilla retained their spot in the Champions League and Mallorca, improbably, were left to contemplate second-best following a last-gasp downturn in their fortunes.