“There’s one shot and the game’s over,” Javi Gracia said, and Valencia’s manager knew it wasn’t just the game either. Two minutes before the curfew began at last the crowd dispersed, leaving Carlos Soler alone in the silence. All that and it came down to this. For 99 minutes Valencia and Getafe had done battle, another chapter in a modern rivalry, producing two red cards, 13 yellows, 43 fouls, three goals and then this: a penalty to finish. Having been 1-0 up, Valencia were 2-1 down, conceding in the 87th and 94th minutes, the void opening beneath them. But suddenly here in the 100th minute was a way out, for now at least.
The closing minutes had been wild but at last there was quiet, everyone waiting for the final twist, a single kick. “I was calm in the sense there’s nothing else you can do and there’s no time for anything else to happen: it’s over,” Gracia said. “You trust in your player.” Soler had stood with the ball under his arm for three minutes, trying to escape the arguments, the pressure and the attempts to put him off, given time to think: about the responsibility and the crisis engulfing Valencia, facing a fourth consecutive defeat and two points off relegation, another man abandoning ship that very morning; about everything that had happened. Enough had happened on Sunday night let alone all the previous ones.
“Valencia awaited The Bordalás Boys like the Poles awaited the Panzer Division: with fear painted across their faces,” claimed local paper Super Deporte, with characteristic constraint, but they had matched Getafe. A little before half-time, Yunus Musah, an England youth international born in New York, raised in Italy and with Ghanaian parents, had given Valencia the lead. Racing from inside his own half, reaching almost 34km/h, and slotting the ball tidily beyond David Soria, he became the youngest foreigner to score for Valencia, the youngest player of any nationality in 79 years and the second youngest in their history, aged 17 years, 338 days.
A red card for Thierry Correia left Valencia with 10 men for over half an hour but they had resisted. And while Getafe pressed and someone shot from the bench to have an angry word with a ballboy considerably older than their goalscorer, telling him to slow the hell down and asking “what are you, a Getafe fan?”, mostly they did so quite convincingly. There had even been chances to end it, for Toni Lato and Maxi Gómez. But then, with victory within their grasp, the ball slipped from Jaume Doménech’s grasp. The keeper made a mess of Mauro Arambarri’s long shot – “absolutely horrific,” in the words of former Valencia goalkeeper Santi Cañizares – pushing it into the path of Cucho Hernández to equalise.
For Valencia it was hard enough to take, but it was about to get worse. In the 93rd-minute Cucho had a great chance to make it 2-1, sending the ball sailing into the empty second tier. And then, suddenly, substitute Abdoulay Diaby was in. His shot hit the post but Ángel reacted quickest to put away the rebound.
The clock in the stadium scoreboard would have said 93.58if it wasn’t for that absurd rule that makes it stop at 90. In the corner, Getafe’s players leapt on each other, screaming. Jaime Mata slapped Ángel repeatedly on the head. On the touchline, the coaching staff embraced. Gracia watched, bewildered. His players wore lost looks. Sunk again, it had been so basic, another self-inflicted wound at a club whose skin is scored with scars. It was almost 11pm, curfew time now, the streets outside as deserted as the stands. There was nothing left to try, just one last desperate punt.
Amazingly, it worked. On 95.16, forty-four seconds left, Maxi took the kick-off, played it back to Gabriel and set off running, heading to the place he’d headed all game: his opponents. Gabriel gave it to Daniel Wass, who paused to let his teammates pile forward and then sent a long, high hoof up the pitch, dropping inside Getafe’s area. Pulled by Damián Suárez, bundled by Djené Dakonam, Maxi went down and the referee pointed to the spot. The time was 95.26: it had taken 10 seconds and three touches. As the maddening crowd gathered, Suárez was sent off – although it took him a couple of minutes to go – Mata got a yellow card and Cucho was called to the bench. He ran over, ran on again, and whispered something to Soria, the secret to stopping this penalty.
Time passed. “Logically, they were doing their job; trying to get it looked to, trying to put it back,” Gracia said. Soler picked up the ball up on 96.36, backed away from the noise and waited while it happened – Cucho’s run, Suárez’s red, all the recriminations. On 99.12, he wiped the ball on his shirt and finally put it down, took a couple of steps back and waited again. Then he side-footed it into the corner. 99.32, 2-2. Maxi bundled into the net trying to get the ball back and seek a third, but there was no time for more. “The game was gone and the equaliser didn’t do justice – we deserved to win– but at least it wasn’t so cruel,” Gracia said.
The point doesn’t help much – Valencia are 13th, three points above the relegation zone – but, captain José Luis Gayà insisted: “I honestly don’t care about that: seriously, I don’t. What I care about is how we played.” Forty metres or so to his left, a single wooden chair sat pitchside with two roses laid on it in honour of Españeta, the kitman who dedicated his life to the club and passed away recently. The dressing room has been named after him. Outside, flowers had been laid, pictures and messages of thanks, many citing his famous line I live and die for Valencia. “We deserved to win, let alone draw,” Gayà continued. “This is the Valencia we want. I’m proud of my players tonight. This is the path to follow, the one Españeta showed us. We need to continue like this.”
They needed a result like this. At the same time as Valencia were playing Getafe, central midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia was in Madrid joining Atlético, who had been given special permission to sign after losing Thomas Partey on the final day when Arsenal paid his buy-out clause. Even with the window closed Valencia weren’t safe, the haemorrhaging continuing, another asset stripped.
In the summer, Valencia sold Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin to Villarreal for €8m. They sold Ferrán Torres and Rodrigo Moreno and released Ezequiel Garay. All of them were starters. Jaume Costa and Cristiano Piccini went too. They signed no one, despite Gracia lining up deals personally. Now, having accused the club of destroying everything and lying to him, Kongdobia has gone as well – two weeks after president, Anil Murthy, had assured Gracia he wouldn’t. Half the team that had won the 2019 cup has gone. So has the manager, the sporting director and the CEO. Last week, even the press officer went. The association of supporters’ clubs has gone too, forced to vacate their locale at Mestalla after 25 years.
Gracia offered to walk, it is only the pay-off that keeps him at a club that can’t afford to sack him and would rather he resign. “You know what I think,” he said last night when he was pushed on the latest departure. “All I know about is what I read in the media. It’s not up to me to explain; let those responsible for it do that. It does no good lamenting the players we haven’t got. I have the players I have and I’m proud of them. I’m here for the team, to try to get them to play better and we’re on the right path.”
Maybe they are now, Carlos Soler’s penalty offering a way back and a way forward, not just because of the result but the way it happened and against which team. It may yet be a false dawn, and the reality is unavoidable, but is something. Gayà said he hoped it would be a turning point. “Something to cling on to,” Las Provincias called it. “A black hole had been about to swallow them up but they’re alive, despite everything,” Super Deporte claimed. The alternative was bleak, as crushing as it would have been cruel. It wasn’t just the game that was almost over when Soler put the ball down, it was much deeper than that, his calm amid the madness delivering a release, a little hope at last.
“If we hadn’t got a point tonight, it would have hard to convince the players that we did many things well,” Gracia admitted. “It was already unfair not to win; not to have even got a point would have been terribly unfair. At least we got that small reward which lets us look on things with different eyes.”
La Liga results
Valencia 2-2 Getafe, Granada 1-1 Levante, Celta Vigo 1-4 Real Sociedad, Real Betis 3-1 Elche, Alavés 1-1 Barcelona, Osasuna 1-3 Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Sevilla, Real Madrid 4-1 Huesca, Eibar 0-2 Cádiz
Monday Villarreal v Valladolid