There was a time, not so long ago, when a Deportivo La Coruña home win against Barcelona was almost to be expected. An exciting Depor side finished above the Catalan giants in four consecutive seasons at the start of the 21st Century but there has been little for the Riazor faithful to shout about in recent times.
It’s seven years since they’ve finished higher than 15th in the Primera Division. The glory years have long since faded and the Riazor hasn’t got close to rocking like it did on the fateful day in May 2000 when Javier Irureta’s men pipped Barcelona to win Depor’s one and only league title.
In recent seasons, no fixture has highlighted the depth of Depor’s demise like their home games with Barcelona. Going into their latest trip to Galicia, Barcelona had won five straight matches at the Riazor, scoring a ridiculous 24 goals in the process and Luis Enrique’s men had won 8-0 on their most recent visit only 11 months ago.
Things hadn’t exactly been going much better for the Galician club this season. The sale of Lucas Pérez in August robbed them of their hometown hero and one player of genuine quality while a run of just three wins from 22 league games added to the general mood of decay and dejection that has lingered in these parts in recent years. A crushing 4-0 defeat at low-scoring Leganés at the end of last month brought the prospect of relegation to the forefront of people’s minds and was almost inevitably followed by the sacking of Gaizka Garitano. He was the latest in a long line of coaches, who’ve failed to live up to the success of predecessors Iglesias and Irureta who illuminated A Coruña in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Step forward Pepe Mel, Deportivo’s seventh managerial appointment in less than six years. The 54 year old has done the rounds in Spain, mostly in the lower leagues, before two career-defining spells at Real Betis either side of a brief stint in the Premier League at West Brom. Although he was dismissed twice at the Benito Villamarín, Mel is still highly thought of by many Betis fans and the fact the Seville club have had three coaches since sacking Mel last January again suggests they may have been a little hasty in dismissing him.
As far as the Depor board were concerned, more than anything Mel stood out as a safe pair of hands, most likely capable of steering the club to safety in a season when there are several very weak sides at the bottom. Even they though, couldn’t have envisaged the radical transformation Mel has inspired in this team, certainly from that dreadful defeat at Leganes in Garitano’s last game at the helm.
Mel probably could have wished for an easier start. His four games so far have seen his men take on Atletico Madrid and Barcelona as well as face a crunch relegation six-pointer in Gijon and a game against Mel’s former club Betis. If the board were looking for a bounce from their new coach, they’ve certainly got it.
Defensively, Depor have looked much more solid under Mel and his team showed real character in grinding out a 1-1 draw with Atleti prior to a crucial 1-0 win at relegation rivals Sporting Gijon, their first away win of the season. Depor had won just one of their previous 25 away league games so it was a hugely significant result and one that built up a bit of an advantage on the drop-zone.
A 1-1 draw with Betis followed thanks to a late Celso Borges penalty but even those performances hardly suggested they would have enough to topple or even compete with a Barcelona side, buoyed by the mother of all European comeback wins. Few Depor fans would have turned up at the Riazor on Sunday expecting anything other than another home defeat against the Catalans, particularly with top scorer Florin Andone and holding midfielder Pedro Mosquera suspended.
Ironically it was the two men, who came in for those players, who would ultimately score the goals that would settle the game. Perhaps more predictably the goals both came from set-piece situations on a typically wet afternoon on the Galician coast. Joselu’s scrappy opener lifted optimism in the stands and even after Luis Suarez’s equaliser, there was a growing sense that a battling Depor side might just be able to cause an almighty upset.
The winner couldn’t have come from a much more unlikely or more popular source. Alex Bergantiños, A Coruña born and bred, had been a virtual spectator this season chalking up just 14 minutes of action in La Liga prior to Sunday’s game. Aside from a few loan spells, the 31 year old has spent his entire career at his hometown club, scoring just six goals for them..
His seventh came courtesy of powerful header in the 74th minute on Sunday and bizarrely it was actually his 3rd goal against Barcelona, having scored in a 5-4 defeat in 2012 and helped inspire a Depor comeback by drawing 2-2 at Camp Nou in 2015. Needless to say Bergantiños won’t be getting many Christmas cards from the Barcelona area this year but Depor’s forgotten man was the toast of Galicia on Sunday night and he is perhaps the sort of workman-like figure that may flourish in a Pepe Mel side.
The win brought some long overdue smiles to the faces of those in the stands at the Riazor, who have scarcely had anything to cheer about in recent years. It was their first home win against one of Spanish football’s ‘big two’ since August 2008 and was some way for Pepe Mel to really introduce himself to the Depor faithful.
On a more practical level, the win has given them an eight point cushion on the relegation zone. Although clearly they will need more points, at the absolute minimum they should now stay up, something that was looking in real doubt, just a fortnight ago.
Sadly though, there is almost an acceptance in A Coruña that Depor’s days of competing with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid on a regular basis, not to mention other top sides in Europe, are a thing of the past. Although Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have performed brilliantly in recent years to get close to the ‘big two’, Depor are operating under even greater financial limitations and merely establishing themselves as a mid-table side over the next few seasons would represent success for Mel and his team.
The football climate in Spain has significantly changed since Depor’s glory years around the turn of the millenium but as Sunday’s game showed, there is life yet in the old Riazor and Mel looks like a smart appointment and someone who could at least get them moving in the right direction again.