At the end of the tunnel, Bryan Gil found a quiet corner to talk to old friends, lingering by the dressing room door, but there wasn’t much he could say that would help now. The last time he had been here, a year ago, he and his Valencia teammates had gathered on the stadium balcony overlooking Avenida Suecia, leaping about and spraying champagne everywhere. That night, thousands gathered below, celebrating reaching the Cup final and singing for him to stay. This time, late on Sunday night, they were out there again; though he had changed team and they had changed tune.
Gil had thought he would be back, just not like this. In the summer, a deal had been done to return to Valencia on loan again, only for Antonio Conte, then Tottenham manager, to block it; in the winter, it had happened again, Valencia signing no one. Gil had joined Sevilla instead, returning to Mestalla only to slip in the knife. About the only man applauded off, he departed wearing an apologetic look, aware of the damage done, how they hurt: the winger who had helped take Valencia to a final back then helped send them towards segunda now, with a 2-0 victory that pulled Sevilla safe. “Air to breathe,” Suso called it.
This was not the way it is supposed to be, for Gil or anyone. Sure, Valencia v Sevilla is meant to be big, but not this kind of big: it’s not meant to be a relegation battle. The all-time league table has them fourth and sixth and they have 40,000 season ticket holders and 35 trophies between them. Huge clubs, since they began in primera, they have only been absent from the top flight five years combined and are ever-present this century, in which they’ve won two league titles, six Uefa Cups and four Copa del Reys, finished in the top four 17 times and reached two Champions League finals.
If there is a game that defines their rivalry, it is the Europa League semi-final in 2014, when Stéphane Mbia’s injury-time goal at Mestalla somehow took Sevilla through instead of Valencia. This might have been even more significant, because here’s another number: between them the two clubs have had six managers this season already; they also have 37 points fewer than at this stage last season. Two of Spain’s biggest clubs have somehow found themselves in a fight for survival. “Life or death,” Superdeporte called it, Marca declaring there was “no time for nostalgia.” The present was too terrifying for that.
There is a rush to declare everything definitive when it is not – worse, to call it a “final”, a cliche so contagious it’s now applied to literal semi-finals, quarter-finals or last-16 ties. There are still eight games remaining, and as many teams still in trouble, most of them worse than Valencia or Sevilla. Yet AS’s suggestion that this might be the most significant meeting between these clubs didn’t sound so far off. The consequences, after all, could be catastrophic; the fallout was nuclear. “It was very important for both teams: the pressure was on,” Sevilla defender Karim Rekik said. “If we lost, we were right back in the relegation fight.” For Valencia, it was worse: they kicked off three points below the last safe spot, five from Sevilla.
“If we win, we could almost say goodbye to them. Winning would be the milk,” said Sevilla coach José Luis Mendilibar.
As the players ducked into the tunnel at the end, half of them stripped off, Ivan Rakitic right down to his pants, Sevilla’s players came through roaring. It wasn’t the greatest game but they had the result they needed. “We scored twice; Valencia generated more and didn’t score any, which is what’s weighing on them,” Mendilibar said, “but we’re satisfied with the result.” The first had been scrambled in by Loïc Badé from a corner; the second, made by Lucas Ocampos and Gonzalo Montiel, was superbly taken by Suso with 15 minutes to go. Mendilibar had, Rekik said, taken them “back to basics”; “more direct, more simple,” in Suso’s words, he had also taken them back up the table, crisis cleared: two wins and a draw in his three games leave Sevilla eight points and five teams clear of the relegation zone.
They also leave Valencia in trouble, their players mostly heading in silently, lost. Hugo Duro had been the first in, breaking the advertising board as he passed. José Luis Gayà, the captain who has carried a sadness with him of late, came last: it was his job to try to explain what he couldn’t. “I don’t understand it, genuinely,” he said. There are some things he understands only too well: the club captain, he has watched teammates move on, managers come and go, all different men with different ideas, becoming pretty much the last man left standing. The decision that he declared decisive wasn’t one of them.
At 1-0 down, the referee, Carlos del Cerro Grande, had been called to the VAR screen, Valencia offered a way back in. As Samu Castillejo had tried to escape Fernando deep inside the area, the Brazilian had put out a hand and stopped the ball. “95% or 99% of the times that a referee is called to the VAR screen, he gives it,” Gayà said. As the referee watched, so did everyone in the Mestalla, the image slowed down and blown up on the big screens, fast-forwarded and rewound repeatedly, a little robotic dance performed. Every time it hit the Brazilian’s hand, there was a “hey!” – a cheer of anticipation. Valencia were about to be handed a lifeline.
When Del Cerro Grande came back, though, he decided not to give a penalty. Valencia had already appealed for a foul on the first goal, Yunus Musah tumbling with Badé, and they would be given a penalty that was rightly taken away again soon after, while there would also be a late red card for Ilaix Moriba. But while there were complaints about those, this was the moment that ended it, insisted the Valencia manager, Rubén Baraja. “That took us out of the game,” he insisted; 15 minutes later, Sevilla scored the second. “Those are the words: helpless, injustice,” Musah said. “You see it on the big screen, the whole stadium sees it and sees it clearly.”
“I’m keeping calm,” claimed the club’s corporate director, Javier Solís, who must be pretty spectacular when he says what he thinks. Valencia, he said, were “absolutely disgusted”, “really angry”; it had been a “total disgrace”, “a robbery in slow-motion replay”. The penalty was “flagrant”, the referee “arrogant”, and Valencia “absolutely sick” of this. “Football,” he said, “smells really bad”.
“People don’t understand that every little detail counts,” Musah said. And yet it’s not just about the penalty, nor is every detail so small; it’s everything, running right the way through. Rino Gattuso walked out on them, the man who claimed to be a lion lacking the courage he kept going on about, his enthusiasm evaporating. Voro, the classic caretaker taking over for the eighth – yes, eighth – time, soon decided he didn’t want to be there, announcing: “My name is saviour but it doesn’t work like that.” Rubén Baraja is a club legend as a player and a manager who hasn’t lasted much longer than six months anywhere, and hadn’t coached in three years.
Valencia won their first two games at Mestalla under Baraja, but those are his only wins in eight. Demand more, do more is not always the most convincing discourse, little in the way of a model or an idea. If they are entitled to feel unfortunate – they didn’t do much here, but nor did they do much less than Sevilla, Musah not unfairly saying “they barely reached our goal” – they have scored only four goals: one of those a penalty and another an own goal. The only real save Marko Dimitrovic had to make on Sunday was an overhit cross.
They have won only once away all season. Their top scorers are Justin Kluivert and Edinson Cavani, on five goals each. Cavani, taken off early on Sunday, whistled by the fans and furious at his manager, has not scored this year. Kluivert is out until May. There is a vulnerability about this team revealed in how the penalty killed them.
“It’s hard to digest,” Toni Lato admitted.
Underlying it all and running through everything is the social and institutional crisis, the departures that debilitate the team and the confrontation with the club’s owners, the league’s second-youngest squad under such intense pressure. On Sunday night, the players left via the side entrance, the bus taking them back to the training ground, but isolation is never complete. The crisis, too, is inescapable; if they don’t react fast, relegation may also be.
Defeat here left them three points from safety; for the first time, it leaves them more than a game away, with just eight to go. This was the one they really needed, the one that could have changed everything, hope slipping away with the result, resignation creeping in. “It was a hard, hard blow,” Musah admitted. Even if they win next weekend, Valencia will remain in the bottom three. Elche, Valladolid and Cádiz are up next: opportunity but also obligation. “We can’t lie, it’s a tough situation,” Musah admitted. “Mentally, it’s tough sometimes, players have less confidence because we’re not getting results. But we help each other, encourage each other, we have to believe.”
It’s not easy. Valencia have collected seven from the last 27 points available. When the second goal went in, fans turned to the directors’ box, anger no longer trained on the referee but someone they consider even more culpable. Peter Lim wasn’t actually there, but it didn’t matter.
Then, defeated, many turned for the exits. On the biggest night of the season, two giants meeting in a place that should not be theirs, Mestalla, so steep, so tight, so loud, the noisiest place there is, had fallen quiet. Most went home in silence, others waited by the front entrance of Avenida Suecia, another protest growing where the party had once been, heard through the walls where Gil, having helped to almost secure Sevilla’s safety, waited to comfort friends for whom a first relegation since 1986, only the second in their club’s history, has become a frighteningly real prospect.