El Centrocampista

CATALAN DERBY WITH EVERYTHING AT STAKE – Nastic and Girona fight to the death.

Derby matches have enough bite without adding extra venom, and if a cold blooded death-match between two local rivals is your idea of festive fun, that’s exactly what happened tonight in the north of Catalunya.

Life isn’t great at the bottom of la segunda, and both Girona and Nastic desperately needed a win from Saturday’s big fixture in the Spanish second division.

Before the game I had commented on the importance of the match for the two teams, a point that my colleague David Planella summed up perfectly from Girona’s perspective.

“It’s a vital game. Depending on what happens tomorrow, Girona could sink (in more ways than one!)”

When I had the audacity to suggest, partly in jest and partly through sympathy, that it was a pity both teams couldn’t claim three points, David was quick to drive home the grave situations faced by his club in particular.

“Nàstic don’t have an owner wanting to get rid of Agné [Girona coach] and take total control over the club. They have other problems, but they don’t depend on tomorrow like ours.”

It seems I had underestimated the situation at Girona, (though I still stand by the claim that Nàstic need to start racking up wins, fast). None the less, David’s sentiment is understandable from a club that is familiar with forces off the pitch determining its fate.

Tonight’s game gave Girona a chance to cling on to life for one more day, and so they seized it by the neck.

It couldn’t have started better for the home team. In the second minute of play, Coro, the player David eulogised in his interview for us earlier in the year, rose to meet a cross from former Barcelona man Benja, and hammered home for the opener.

Girona had switched to a 4-3-3, and Benja was clearly more comfortable with the system drilled into him during his Barça days. The former blaugrana man should have made it two soon after, but his touch somehow failed him at the vital moment.

Nàstic tried to respond in turn, and after 25 minutes had already won no less than seven corners, yet failed to capitalise in a theme that would become recurring as the night progressed. A forced change meant the injured Mingo came off for Raul Fuster, and the substitution marked a shift in momentum.

The equalizer was coming, and Benja soon went on to rue his miss. In the 41st minute, Adrian Luna, a talented attacking midfielder on loan from Espanyol, levelled the tie for Nastic.  Despite some good opportunities at the other end, Girona didn’t seem to know how to control the game after going ahead so early, a fault common in sides desperate to eize their relegation woes like Girona.

Nàstic could smell blood, and their barrage of set-pieces and chances on goal showed a cut-throat mentality that in truth justified their equaliser just before the end of the first half.

The interval left Raul Agné with more questions than answers about his team, and allowed him a few minutes that must have seemed brutally insufficient in order to organise what could be the most important 45 minutes of his career as Girona manager.

As the whistle blew again, Coro and Dani Nieto looked intent on winning the game for Girona between themselves. Seconds in, Nieto drove a shot on goal only to be blocked at the last, and soon after, Coro sprang the offside trap to play Nieto in, but the shot flashed wide. A promising start from Girona, but the same outcome as before: wasted chances.

For Girona’s sake it had to change, and fortunately it did. Nieto turned provider this time, and after some clever feet, crossed the ball for the maker of Girona’s first, Benja.

Benja managed to get his toe out just in time to steer the ball into the net. Girona were ahead, again, but knew they had to do better with this lead than the first.

Raul Agné was intent on making sure his team avoided making the same mistake twice, and soon after was balling “Calm down, calm down!” at Girona keeper Santamaría, who was pacing frantically between the sticks.

No amount of motivational speaking was going to prepare the keeper for what happened next though. 59 minutes in, and Nàstic levelled in a spectacular manner.

Longás latched on to a hurried clearance under pressure from Santamaría, and with his first touch of the game, chipped the ball above the keeper, who helplessly watched it dip into the net. It was a goal worthy of a great game, and raised the stakes even further. Golàs de vaselina (great goal, with vaseline!) cried the commentators, in a phrase used to express the perfect first touch.

Again, Coro looked to turn the tide, dribbling past several of his opponents with a hint of Lionel Messi. He was brought down by a foul in a manner similar to those who try to stop the Argentine, too.

The free-kick was taken perfectly by Jandro, who swerved the ball into the net, and Girona were ahead yet again. This was the kind of game that leaves you exhausted, and a perfect example of how derby games in Spanish football are so much more than the hack and slash efforts so common elsewhere.

That being said, some of the usual festivities crept up eventually, and a series of yellow cards on both sides followed Girona’s third. The game had swung firmly in favour of the home team, and Coro was a constant menace for the visitors from Tarragona. If he continues in this kind of form, someone will surely come calling from a first division club sooner rather than later.

After their third, Girona finally seemed to learn their lesson, playing to their strengths by staying compact and looking for the counter attack. As before, Nàstic won plenty of corners yet failed to convert, the worst of which was a great opportunity only two minutes before the end of the game that beat the Girona defence but beat the attackers, too, who were slow to respond.

Perhaps Tarragona coach Jorge d’Alessandro should consider working on set plays with his team. The sheer volume they managed to win would surely have resulted in a goal had they known how to work them effectively.

The former Atlético Madrid coach has been linked with a return to his former club, and with a target man like Radamel Falcao available, Atléti would hope that d’Alessandro could show some more creativity in organising set plays, in the unlikely scenario that he took over from Gregorio Manzano.

With seconds to go, Raul Agné was content to make a final, laboured substitution in an attempt to run the clock down. Coro walked off to a hero’s salute, an ovation deserved by his match winning performance.

Montellivi turned into a caldron of noise, with the home crowd willing their team on to see out the final moments of the game. Fortunately for the locals, the last moment  was yet another corner Nàstic, by which point the home team couldn’t have asked for much more.

Nàstic delivered in a by now habitually poor manner, and Benja was happy to lump the ball anywhere possible. When the whistle blew, Agné must have felt like his players just saved his job.

In fairness, credit should go to the coach too.  His team looked markedly different in the second half and demonstrated a compactness that they lacked in the first. Nàstic on the other hand were forced to do what they done worse, looking for a lucky break from a set play to no avail.

With the three points, Girona leapfrogged Nàstic, their 16 points moving them into 19th and out of the relegation zone, leap-frogging Huesca in the process. Nàstic on the other hand remain in the drop-zone, with little motivation to take from a performance that lacked creativity.

Raul Agné will be happy to go on his Christmas break knowing that his team are one step closer to leaving the relegation zone, having broken a 5 game streak without winning a match.

If he can eradicate the defensive errors Girona showed in the first half, and encourage his teams to perform in the compact, counter-attacking and frankly, British, manner they done so well in the second, perhaps Girona can finally produce a string of results and start looking up for a change.

Agné has bought himself and the club time, for now.



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