On Saturday, Leganés and coach Javier “El Vasco” Aguirre faced their most important match of the season.
With La Liga resuming play after a three-month layoff caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, coach Javier Aguirre led Leganés as they hosted relegation rivals, Valladolid. Earlier in the day, a last-minute Manu Trigueros strike condemned 17th-placed Celta Vigo to defeat at Villarreal. If Leganés could take three points at home, they would draw level with Celta and take a huge step towards a miraculous salvation.
One of the smallest clubs in La Liga, the 2016-17 campaign was Leganés’ first in Spain’s top flight. The club from the outskirts of Madrid defied expectations to avoid relegation in their first three seasons in Primera and enjoyed their best ever La Liga campaign with a 13th-placed finish in 2018-19.
Yet, “Los Pepineros” took just two points from their first nine matches this season, leaving them rooted to the foot of the table. The disastrous start precipitated the exit of Argentine manager Mauricio Pellegrino, who resigned on October 21.
On November 4th, Aguirre was hired as Pellegrino’s replacement. Even though relegation seemed certain, the Leganés job was a golden opportunity for Aguirre to revive his career. Between 2002 and 2014, Aguirre managed four different La Liga clubs, including a spell at league heavyweights Atlético Madrid. In the process, Aguirre became the first Mexican to establish himself as a top-level coach in Europe.
Nevertheless, Aguirre’s reputation was sullied by match-fixing accusations dating back to his time in charge of Real Zaragoza. The controversy, which contributed to his premature exit from the Japanese National Team in February 2015, hung over Aguirre’s head until this past December, when a Spanish tribunal cleared him of any wrong doing.
The day before Aguirre was declared innocent, Leganés collected only their second win of the season with a 3-2 victory over Celta Vigo. The crucial three points, coupled with the alleviation Aguirre’s innocence provided, changed the dynamic of Leganés’ season. They took 17 points from 12 matches between early December and early March, bringing them to within three points of safety. Aguirre had transformed the mentality of his players, who now believed in a great escape that once seemed impossible.
Yet, this renewed spirit was not enough to prevent a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Valladolid, who benefitted from a horrible mix-up in the second minute between Leganés center-back Chidozie Awaziem and goalkeeper Iván Cuéllar that led to the visitors opening goal. Following the match, Aguirre insisted that his side is “not dead yet.”
Despite the untimely defeat, Leganés still have a chance to climb out of the relegation zone. “Los Pepineros” sit only three points behind Celta Vigo and only four behind 16th-placed Eibar, who lost 3-1 at Real Madrid on Sunday. Leganés visit Eibar in round 35 and also play 18th-placed Mallorca and bottom side Espanyol before the season ends.
Winning those three matches is imperative if Aguirre hopes to keep Leganés in La Liga. Furthermore, the former Mexican National Team coach needs to solve Leganes’ problems in front of goal. “Lega” has the worst offense in the league with only 22 goals scored. Besides forward Óscar Rodríguez (8 goals in La Liga), no other player has scored more than one league goal. The winter departures of key attackers Martin Braithwaite and Youssef En-Nesyri, which left Leganes 38 million euros in the coffers, could prove costly. Considering their position in the table when he took over and their alarming lack of firepower, if Aguirre can save Leganes from relegation it would be the crowning achievement of a sterling career.