Sporting Gijon boss Abelardo Fernandez described every one of his side’s remaining matches as a final as they desperately fight to beat the drop. However, their match-up against Atletico Madrid is one final in which they would’ve accepted their losers’ medals with no fuss.
When La Liga’s two red-white-and-blue-clad teams line up, more often than not would most back the capital club, especially considering that one is second from the top, while the other is second from bottom.
Yet Sporting pulled off perhaps the biggest shock of the season thus far in toppling their more-decorated opponent, and they battled back from behind to do so.
Yes, Atletico had toiled for 120 minutes against Dutch side PSV in the Champions League, before travelling to Spain’s north coast for what was a fairly early kick-off in the country. True, they were without the likes of Diego Godin and Stefan Savic at the back, but take nothing away from Sporting.
Having gone a goal down to Antoine Griezmann’s superbly-executed free kick, few would have blamed the relegation candidates from retreating into their shell, picking their battles and looking to pinch points against the sides around them.
And in true, cup-final fashion, there was late drama. Antonio Sanabria hit a thumping free kick of his own, before Carlos Castro crowned a well-crafted move to secure an Asturian triumph with just a minute left on the clock.
They perhaps could have had more, had they not hit the woodwork twice, Castro in particular showing great skill in missing a chance which seemed easier to score from.
Last week, this writer lamented how unlikely it is for a small club in La Liga to emulate the exploits of Leicester City and challenge the big boys. While it’s largely true, Sporting became the first team from the bottom half of the Primera table to topple a top-three rival, emphasising just how herculean a feat it was – and one which could spur them on in their battle to beat the drop.
It’s a result which has likely decided the title race, but at the other end of the table, Sporting are still far from safe, sitting 19th in the League. Before the Atletico win, they were without a victory in nine, which is most certainly relegation form and still a likely outcome. Moreover, their shock success over Diego Simeone’s men means little if they get nothing against basement bys Levante in their next match, which takes place after the international break.
Their saving grace is the fact that many of the teams around them are in as precarious a position. Rayo Vallecano, Getafe and Granada are all just a point in front as La Liga’s relegation dogfight hots up. Perhaps more commendable than their exploits against Atleti is their competitiveness down there with such a young side, cobbled together by loans and free transfers.
Not a single Sporting outfield player is over the age of 30, and players such as Sanabria and Alen Halilovic may not be playing for them in La Liga next season, yet they showed all the fight and guile of a team who wants to stay in the division.