A Matter of Time
The most important three weeks of the season, says Diario de Mallorca. Three weeks for the team to shape their ultimate fate. Three weeks away from safety.
If it seems like we’ve been saying this sort of thing a lot lately, it’s because it’s not far from the truth. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that Mallorca were heading into another period that would shape their season; a group of matches in an extremely short space of time that could either see the team slip right down the table or hold their current position firmly. Els Barralets emerged from that testing spell with a decent haul of points and kept a reasonable gap between themselves and the relegation zone. A success for all concerned.
But now it starts again. Fresh out of that testing timeframe, Mallorca step straight back into the line of fire with the latest ultimatum; you have three weeks in which to secure your safety.
When these sorts of deadlines are made and with trouble always seemingly just around the corner, it’s understandably tough for the players to keep up a strong mentality and to not lose their focus. Certainly, the last thing anyone wants is for them to allow a sense of complacency to set in (or, conversely, to cave under all the pressure). In truth they may look fairly comfortable in mid-table, and there may be a decent gap between themselves and the bottom three, but the point Diario de Mallorca wanted to drill home is that they aren’t safe yet. The moment the players switch off, even briefly, is the moment they allow themselves to sink back into the battle they have fought all season long to avoid.
But Laudrup’s men set out from the start against Levante with every intention of taking all three points. Their play was positive, their optimism firm and, above all, their focus narrowed. Mallorca didn’t look like a side sitting in comfort; they knew they had a job to do.
This determined approach almost paid dividends extremely early on in the encounter. Some swift passing almost saw them break through on numerous occasions and a variety of players looked extremely bright, not least Akihiro Ienaga, making his first start in the league for the islanders. He had a brilliant chance to take the lead after a fantastic counter attack saw him one-on-one with the Levante stopper, but his close range effort was blocked and Webó couldn’t do anything with the rebound. Despite the miss, though, he seemed to be at the heart of everything positive Los Bermellones constructed. The man from Japan was withdrawn by Laudrup early on in the second half, but his recent performances – though many have been just brief glimpses – have shown many signs to be optimistic about Mallorca’s latest signing.
And on that note, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the tragedies that have befallen Japan and other areas over the past week. Best wishes to all concerned, and I certainly hope Aki himself hasn’t been personally affected by any of the destruction.
The early highlight of the game came after a brilliant ball over the top from Tejera almost saw Mallorca take the lead in truly empathic fashion; Webó struck the ball first time from a long way out, intending to lob the stranded goalkeeper. But for the ball’s agonising slow-motion impact against the post, he had him beaten.
It was an extremely positive start to the match for the visitors, who in all truth looked comfortably like the home side. A sense of perspective only enhances this. If you cast your mind back to the start of the season, Los Bermellones were a lacklustre team on their travels, unable to scrape together any semblance of convincing play, let alone bring home a haul of points. Now, however, Mallorca are a far cry from that sporadic side – not because of some of the away wins they have racked up over the season (Sevilla, Valencia, Espanyol), but because of their approach to these matches now. Unlike some games earlier on in the season, the team don’t look beaten before they even begin – and that can only be positive.
Of course, such a bright start was always likely to fade away and as Mallorca’s outright control of the match faded it turned into a little more of a scrappy affair, foul after foul hindering the flow of the game. But there were positives everywhere – small signs of improvement, signs even perhaps of a growing consistency within the Mallorca ranks; a growing sense of maturity. On far too many occasions this season, regardless of their stake in the game, Mallorca have been punished by conceding goals that could have been avoided. Against Levante, the backline remained firm as the momentum of the game ebbed and flowed, and the home side didn’t look like getting a sniff at goal.
So you can guess what happened next.
Against the run of play, Levante took the lead with a stunning strike out of nowhere after the ball dropped to Juanlu from an inconspicuous corner. Aouate was beaten by the shot from the moment it was hit – though perhaps a little more could have been expected from the veteran keeper – and just like that, Mallorca were behind. Their positive start counted for nothing. It was back to square one.
This very fact may sound like it undermines my point about the seeming solidity of Mallorca’s defence, but I stand by the assertion that they looked composed in their containment of Levante’s threats – at least until the goal. Make no mistake, Mallorca went behind to a wonderful strike; something that happens on occasion and simply cannot be avoided. There was nothing the defence could have done about it. It was a strike worthy of winning any game.
But Los Bermellones had other ideas.
Good fortune surrounded their equaliser on the hour mark as Ivan Ramis’ free-kick took a deflection on its way in, but it seemed the least Mallorca deserved after being, in many ways, the better team up until that point, despite being behind. And it came at the perfect time, allowing Los Bermellones a clear path back into the game.
They were unable, however, to push towards victory, and may feel aggrieved at this fact; certainly, things could’ve been different and the game was definitely there to be won. But that works both ways and Els Barralets were lucky not to concede late on when Levante struck the bar from a header after another corner.
All things considered, a draw was probably a fair result for both teams.
Mallorca, then, must now assess their position, ready for the next game. With one week down, they have two left; two games that will decide whether they can hoist themselves to safety with time to spare or whether they will have to fight until the very end to secure their first-division fate. Ideally Los Bermellones would have wanted to pick up all three points in this match; up next they play host to a resurgent Zaragoza before travelling to the ever-tricky Riazor to face Deportivo (although, going against the ‘two week’ timeframe, this is actually after a week off from the fixture list). If they want to secure safety within the ‘weeks’ that remain, then, two victories may be essential – and that’s no easy task.
Win or lose, these upcoming matches will show us what the team is made of – and whether they can keep up the small improvements they have shown lately. The only thing that’s certain at the moment is that – even past these two impending games – there’s a lot left to play for, and what Mallorca need to do above all else is stay focused. The hardest part of the season is only just beginning.
by Phil Montgomery