Eibar defying the odds again

In Spain, the five-goal victory known as the ‘manita’ (literally translated as ‘little hand’) is usually only reserved for the big two. But now that Real Madrid and Barcelona rack up even bigger wins against smaller teams on a regular basis, ‘manitas’ have become less and less noteworthy.

Hence why there was nothing special about Real’s 5-1 win against 19th-place Sporting on Sunday in front of a 70,000-strong crowd at the Bernabéu. A day later, however, Eibar beat Granada by the same scoreline at the Ipurua, a stadium which holds 6,300 spectators at its maximum capacity. It was Eibar’s biggest victory in the first division, and Marca put it best, calling it a ‘manita histórica’ for the Basques.

And it was historic. The result against Granada was Eibar’s fourth win in a row, and they now sit sixth, one point behind Celta and with realistic designs on European football. They have scored 32 goals in La Liga, more than any other team apart from Real and Barca, including leaders Atlético. Not bad for a team who could well have been playing in Segunda had it not been for Elche’s unpaid taxes.

The sceptics will of course point to this as a sign of why Eibar’s achievements are tainted, but it is impossible not to be taken away with the tiny Basque club’s story, as improbable as it is heroic. Described as a model club and promoted to the top tier in 2014, they were almost relegated to Segunda B (Spain’s third division) before the 2014-15 season had even started because of bizarre financial regulations.

Eibar did eventually take their place as the smallest club in La Liga, performing admirably in the first half of their maiden season and finishing winter as the highest placed Basque club, above both Athletic Club and Real Sociedad. But having been within touching distance of European football, Gaizka Garitano’s side fell back down just as easily in the second half of the season and were relegated on the last day despite winning 3-0 against Córdoba. Garitano resigned, and it looked like Eibar’s fairytale had been just that: a brief moment in which reality had been temporarily suspended and everything seemed too good to be true. 

But thanks to Elche’s administrative chaos, Eibar were handed a lifeline. Elche were relegated for unpaid tax debts to the Spanish authorities, and Eibar somehow took their place at the summit of Spanish football again.

Eibar had already experienced being the plucky, happy-go-lucky minnows of La Liga. Now, they wanted to go one better. The experienced Jose Luis Mendilibar, a former Eibar manager himself, was brought in to fill the hole Garitano had left at the Ipurua, along with a fresh group of players to revitalise the team. On paper, the motley crew of free signings, loanees and low-cost transfers may not have looked that impressive, but there can be no doubt as to how integral they have been this season.

Of the 11 who started against Granada, nine arrived in the summer. Top goalscorer Borja Bastón is on loan from Atlético and notched two on Monday, as did Sergi Enrich, a free transfer from Numancia. Takashi Inui, who opened the scoring, was one of two players Eibar actually spent money on in the off-season, signed from Eintracht Frankfurt for the grand fee of £350,000.

Of course, it could all go wrong again, but it seems as if Eibar have learnt from their mistakes last time around. Mendilibar himself has said that “the only thing in our heads is achieving survival”, and while European football is now a realistic objective, his side will not let themselves get carried away. They have kept the intoxicating spirit from last season and refined it, creating an even better side who are showing just why they deserve to be in this league. Anyone who says otherwise is a spoilsport.

 

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