A Copa del Rey final date against Barcelona awaits for Alaves, a classic Spanish side now back making the right kind of headlines
It’s been a tough decade for the Mendizorroza faithful.
Surely you’ll remember one of the most epic stories in Spanish football, when a relatively unknown team defied Europe and was very close to conquering a UEFA Cup title against all odds. It happened in 2001, in an amazing showdown against Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool (Carragher, Hyppia, Babbel, Heskey, Owen, Gerrard… remember?) that gifted the football world with possibly one of the best finals in decades (5-4).
The fairy tale had a bitter end, but still mighty Alavés managed to engrave its name in the tournament’s history, catapulting some of its players to (admittedly short-lived) world-class fame: for example, humble striker Javi Moreno ultimately ended up signing for AC Milan soon after.
Last Wednesday, Alavés had another final at arm’s length, the Copa del Rey. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg against Celta Vigo, the Mendizorroza stadium was bursting with electrifying energy, the stands loud and thrilled to experience such an exciting night.
As we said earlier, fans have been dragged through despair for over ten years in a stint that relegated the team to La Segunda, deepened the downfall into La Segunda B (Spain’s third division) and many times seemed very close to disappearing into the pits of football memory.
And they delivered. Oh, boy, they did!
Almost sixteen years later, Alavés finds itself in another final (the first one in Spanish territory in its 96 years of existence) after beating Celta thanks to an 81st-minute stunner by Edger Méndez (1-0) that made the packed crowd in Vitoria explode and sent Spanish football into sheer amazement.
To put things into context, just remember that, twelve months ago, the team was fighting in the mud for a promotion in the second division, a ruthless league that punishes every slight mistake made by any side with dreams of squeezing into the top-20 clubs in Spain. At the end of the day, ‘El Glorioso’ succeeded. Alavés boarded the La Liga ship ten years later after a long walk of shame through the depths of Spanish football.
But, the Mendizorroza board knew that an upgrade was needed in order to have a chance of surviving in such a competitive environment. After promotion, it was time to plan and switch some names in the transfer market. It was a wild summer: almost twenty players were signed and a new manager, Argentinian former Barça and Valencia player Mauricio ‘El Flaco’ Pellegrino, was appointed with the task of building a resilient squad who could stand a chance against sides with budgets several times bigger than this small Vitoria club.
With full support from the board, led by basket-related boss Josean Querejeta (he’s also the owner of the important Baskonia basketball team), Pellegrino slowly but steadily built a side that has order and sacrifice as their main traits, without forgetting some colourful, skilled individuals that may topple a tight game in its favour.
Former Bilbao winger Gaizka Toquero provides the guts and effort in the frontline, with saucy Deyverson Silva battling defenders and Ibai Gomez’s class adding to the mix that final finish or assist. In the midfield, youngster Victor Camarasa just keeps getting better and better, right next to Real Madrid-owned Marcos Llorente in what is arguably the best internship a Madridista can get: learning far away from home and in a team that leaves comfort behind in favour of sheer fighting spirit.
‘El Flaco’s boys have outperformed defensively most of the teams they played against, keeping a clean sheet in the four games that led to the huge final they’ll play against Barcelona. Pellegrino, who had his first shot in La Liga as Valencia’s boss four years ago, was sacked by president Manuel Llorente in a surprising twist of events, after a demanding Mestalla crowd chanted against the president for the bad results.
The crowd never wanted their manager out, but a scared executive can be unpredictable. Disappointed and feeling betrayed, Pellegrino’s final words to his former superior (reportedly: “Manolo, you shat yourself”) marked the end of a short stint with lots of potential but, unfortunately, with not the best results to support such a risky appointment (Pellegrino didn’t have that much experience as a manager at that point).
— Deportivo Alavés (@Alaves) February 8, 2017
Four years later, after getting plenty of mileage in his two managing jobs in Argentina (Estudiantes de la Plata and Independiente) and more withered and experienced, ‘El Flaco’ has managed to outsmart most of his peers both in La Liga and La Copa, with a team that remains peacefully afloat in a comfortable spot in the standings and has won a title shot against FC Barcelona, one of Europe’s best sides.
Little Alaves has grown into a huge surprise, and its former glory days (‘El Glorioso’ was their nickname in the 1930’s) might be relived sooner than expected.