The greatest escape

The relegation battle in La Liga this year has been a tightly-contested affair and at least half of the division has, at some point in the campaign, looked in serious peril. Eleven different sides have ended a match-week in the drop zone and few more often than newly-promoted Las Palmas.

The Canary Islanders were among the favourites to go down as they prepared for their first top-flight campaign in 14 years, and the start they made saw them written off by many pundits just a couple of months into the season. A 4-0 defeat at Getafe in week eight left them with just five points on the board and led to the dismissal of Paco Herrera, the man who had ended their long absence from La Primera.

It was a move that was widely criticised and appeared somewhat rash, given Herrera’s achievements the previous term. The decision to replace him with former Lugo boss Quique Setien, a man with no top-flight experience was also a questionable move, and he took over a side who were looking light on quality and had become strong favourites for the drop.

Setien by no means inspired an instant turnaround in the club’s fortunes either as he would win just one of his opening six League games. Their 3-1 defeat at fellow new boys Sporting Gijon in week 14 left Las Palmas down the bottom and in deep trouble.

Despite that, there were glimmers of hope to hang onto, and although the table would suggest otherwise, there were signs that Las Palmas were at least going to be competitive. The Getafe match aside, they had not been on the wrong end of any crushing defeats, impressive given they’d already visited the Santiago Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Vicente Calderon. Indeed, they’d restricted Barcelona and Atletico Madrid to single-goal victories and had only lost 3-1 away to a Real Madrid team who have dished out many a drubbing on their own ground.

Perhaps the turning point in their season came in week 15, when a Real Betis side, who had been going very well on the road, visited Gran Canaria. A scrappy match appeared to be heading to an uninspiring 0-0 draw, until Brazilian forward Willian Jose popped up in the third minute of stoppage time to break the deadlock and give the islanders a much-needed win.

The 24-year-old’s last goal had come against Las Palmas, when he netted for Zaragoza in the 2015 Segunda Division playoff final, and his first goal for his new club proved crucial in turning around both his and his team’s fortunes. Since then, Willian Jose has given Las Palmas a genuine goal threat, netting seven times in 12 League starts, a huge bonus for a side who had looked relatively solid at the back, certainly on home soil, but were struggling at the other end.

Home form was always likely to be key for Las Palmas, whose isolated location means they’ve tended to enjoy life at home considerably more than on those long away trips. It had also been a while since Primera Division sides have had to board a plane to the Canary Islands for League games, and they’ve certainly managed to catch one or two cold. The Betis win formed the start of an upturn in their fortunes at Estadio de Gran Canaria, and including it they’ve won six of their last 10 league fixtures at the stadium, with their only defeats during that period coming against the big three.

Away from home, though, Las Palmas’ form still made for dire reading as the campaign headed towards the spring. When they made the long journey north to Eibar in late February, they had gone 22 matches without an away victory in La Liga and had only three points on the road all season. Their last winning top-flight visit to mainland Spain had come way back in January 2001 at Celta Vigo.

Although their absence from the Primera Division had clearly been a long one, their failure to do anything on the road was just as clearly beginning to play with a few heads, despite some encouraging home displays.

However a run of 38 unsuccessful top-flight trips to mainland Spain (they won games at Mallorca and Tenerife during the 2001-2002 season) was finally ended in the Basque Country with another 1-0 success against Eibar, which perhaps even topped the Betis result in terms of its significance.

Having gone so long without an away win, there was a certain amount of inevitability about what would happen next. Playing with a new sense of belief on the road, Setien’s men put in two more extremely well-disciplined displays to secure further 1-0 victories at Real Sociedad and – most impressively – fourth placed Villarreal. Their 3-1 win at Deportivo La Coruna on Monday was their fourth successive away victory and their sixth win in seven matches overall.

It has seen them move from the depths of the drop zone to the top half in just six weeks, and with six games to go, they are now well clear of the relegation battle and can properly start building for next season in the top flight, something which was always going to be tough, given they didn’t secure promotion until late June.

Setien certainly deserves enormous credit for defying the doubters and ultimately securing survival with remarkable ease, given he was thrown in very much at the deep end. His organisational skills and tactical nous have been key factors in Las Palmas’ improvement, but he has been helped out by the central defensive pairing of Aythami and Pedro Bigas, who have provided the solid base for most of those key 1-0 wins that have transformed their season.

Jonathan Viera has also had a fine campaign, scoring and creating seven goals and remaining a threat, despite featuring in five different positions. Certainly Las Palmas are a little bit better going forward than they are given credit for, and at times they have played some pretty enterprising football, scoring three or more goals on four occasions.

Setien has also demonstrated that he is a flexible Coach, and his careful tinkering with tactics to exploit perceived opposition weaknesses has paid dividends on numerous occasions. You’d be hard pressed to think of a more impressive boss in La Liga this term, given the revival he has sparked at Las Palmas.

The struggles of early-season high fliers Eibar and Deportivo since the turn of the year leave Las Palmas suddenly looking like the biggest surprise package this season. Their 3-1 win at Riazor saw them move above both clubs, and although Villarreal could also stake a claim for that particular tag, the Yellow Submarine did finish in the top six last term and their rise to likely Champions League qualification has been more down to the demise of Sevilla and, to a greater extent, Valencia than their own brilliance.

The aim now for Las Palmas is to secure their best League finish since the 1978-79 campaign, when they finished sixth in La Liga. Veteran midfielder Juan Carlos Valeron is the only member of the current crop who was even born then, and the Canary Islanders haven’t finished in the top half of the top flight since. If they can maintain their current form over the next few weeks, there is no reason why this Las Palmas side can’t make a little bit of history come May.