I’ve watched countless number of games this season involving Spanish sides at all levels; from Juvenil right up to the spectacle that was the five El Clasico’s but the best of all, had been saved (just about) to the very last. It was Saturday night, the second leg of the Segunda play-off semi-final and Granada were hosting Celta Vigo, who led from the first leg 1-0.
As soon as I heard the roar of Los Cármenes I knew this was going to be a special night. 16,500 packed into the tiny stadium located in Andalucia on what was going to be a night of the highest drama. Celta manager Paco Herrera had dropped the first shock of the night long before the whistle sounded to start the game, omitting Quique De Lucas, David Rodriguez and Roberto Trashorras – all regular starters, from the line-up. Meanwhile Granada were restricted in being unable to field their trump card in top scorer Alex Geijo; a bustling, clinical Swiss hitman on loan from Italian side Udinese.
Granada’s partnership agreement with Udinese leaves a bitter taste in many Spanish mouths, as they believe the excessive number of personnel on loan from the ‘Zebrette’ are an unfair advantage against wafer light Segunda squads. 6 of the 11 who started the game were in-fact on loan, so you might see why no-one outside of Granada – and quite possibly Udine – wanted them to triumph.
The Andalucian side dominated the first half, and as the story would have it was a man from Udinese who dictated manners. Dani Benítez, a graceful wide player blessed with divine technique would torment Celta’s backline, constantly beating hulking full-back Hugo Mallo. Every time he did this the home crowd cheered ever louder, urging Benítez to humiliate his full-back time and time again – he duly obliged too. With the pressure increasing, the public could sense a goal and a swirling cross from Collantes was met by Fabián Orellana, who squeezed in at the front post to nudge home with his head. There was an eruption from the stands, and they made it clear why many have dubbed them ‘The noise from the south’.
As the half-time whistle sounded, everyone got a chance to catch their breath – the second half was about to take it away again though.
Herrera’s half-time team talk seemed to fall upon deaf ears, as once again his Celta side succumbed to wave upon wave of Granada attack – still being led by Benítez. Something had to change, and it did so with De Lucas and Trashorras both making their entrance for the Sky Blues. The former is one of those players you ask yourself why is he not playing in the top flight, a character with divine natural ability and an unquestionable talisman for his side. Despite that switch, it could’ve been redundant as seconds after Granada were awarded a penalty, after Català dropped Odion Ighalo in the area; up stepped Benítez, the home crowd stood up expecting, but were left duly disappointed as their best player on the night fired in a low, weak effort which was easily saved. Trashorras then came into the game for Celta, operating in a playmaker role he brought composure to the midfield what hadn’t been there before – a couple of passes he made switching the play didn’t look too far removed from something you’d see at the Camp Nou.
Seeing this unfold before him, Benítez wasn’t going to be upstaged and once again he renewed his one-sided battle with Mallo, and once again he came out on top – he nearly delivered victory too, when a superb cross was met by Orellana who saw an effort cannon off the post in the last-minute of normal time. The game was going to extra time, not for a second did anyone think the drama was over.
Just three minutes into extra time and Granada were awarded another penalty after an alleged handball which replays showed was unavoidable; a poor decision on the referee’s part. It was Benítez again to step up, and again he fired in a low and weak as the home support began to feel an air of inevitability sweep over them, was it not going to be there night? The battle continued in open play though, with the game now extremely stretched only last-ditch challenges were preventing a way through – a sinister foul saw a yellow card and the end of Roberto Lago’s night as a Granada counter attack was about to get into full swing. With minutes remaining before penalties, Trashorras nearly won it in the most spectacular fashion as he slammed a shot towards Granada’s goal from 40 or so yards out, and for the first time all tight there seemed to be silence as the ball cannoned off the bar.
One hundred and twenty minutes of confrontation. It still wasn’t over…penalties, they say it’s cruel way to decide things but this had now become something like torture. The emotion from the stands had transcended onto the pitch, and it was at the most crucial time.
Orellana and Trashorras were first up, and both despatched with ease before substitute Carlos Calvo blazed wide for Granada. A series of penalties were then took superbly by both sides, while Celta’s Iago Aspas converted then put his finger to his lips, hushing the emotional Los Cármenes crowd – the referee gave him second yellow for his actions, as a mini-brawl ensued at the centre circle.
The tension though, was about to become unbearable; Benítez made a slow walk to the penalty spot for the third time, this time showing his ‘cojones’ by calmly slotting home. It was 4-4, and Celta giant Michu stepped up, but his effort went miles over – the crowd were about to explode, but they had to wait, meanwhile Michu’s teammates who had their hands in prayer had fallen to the floor in despair and it wasn’t even over yet.
Granada goalkeeper Roberto – a former Celta youth player – then thought he’d have a go, sporting a black eye received in the first leg he put his penalty underneath counterpart Yoel. Català was then next for Celta as 16,500 people held their breath, his effort was subsequently saved by Robert as every member of Granada’s bench streamed on to the pitch.
Real Madrid and Barcelona can keep their media propaganda, trivial politicking, histrionics and false sense of superiority over one another. What happened in Los Cármenes on Friday was an El Clásico of its very own – but now Granada have to face a two-legged final to reach the promised land for the first time in 35 years.