When the Racing de Santander board fired Juan Carlos Mandiá on November 9, the team had only won one game out of ten in La Liga, and they had lost the first leg in the Round of 32 of the Copa del Rey against UD Salamanca, a mid-table club in the Segunda División. This job was Mandiá’s first in the top flight, as his previously managed teams, Logroñés, Hércules, and Real Madrid Castilla, were all in the lower divisions of Spanish football. Mandiá looked overmatched by his managing brethren, and the players never looked to respond to their newest coach.
In the last fifty-five years, Racing de Santander has only finished in the top ten three times in La Liga. Some of those years were spent in the lower divisions, so expectations were not necessarily sky high in Santander. Two of those three top-ten places occurred in the last three years, including a surprising sixth and a UEFA Cup spot in the 2007-08 campaign, so when Racing was in 17th heading into the international break on November 9, the Cantabrians had enough of Juan Carlos Mandiá. Racing chairman Francisco Pernía turned back to the future, as he bestowed the reins of his club to Miguel Ángel Portugal, who guided Los Verdiblancos to a respectable tenth place finish in the 2006-07 season. The goal was simple for Portugal: avoid relegation.
Coming off the international break, Racing faced two difficult foes in succession: Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña, two teams flying high in the top five of the table. Although Racing lost both of these matches, Portugal’s stamp had been sealed on the team in a short amount of time. The defensive ineptitude that clearly marred Juan Carlos Mandiá’s reign at the club was all but abolished as both Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña fought hard for their 1-0 victories. Even Depor’s manager, Miguel Ángel Lotina, felt as though his team was lucky to earn all three points against Racing.
If Portugal and Racing de Santander were not favored to garner any points against Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña, the three matches leading into the Christmas break were crucial for Racing’s fate in La Liga. They played an Espanyol team who lost their last three matches, scoring zero while conceding seven. Racing dismissed Los Periquitos with shocking ease, as homegrown wünderkind Sergio Canales scored his first two goals for the club in a 0-4 romp at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat. Admittedly green, both figuratively and literally, this eighteen-year-old, who grew up within walking distance of El Sardinero, had been thrust upon the watching eyes of Spain by his stellar play.
Los Racinguistas brought their momentum back to their friendly confines in Santander, and with a match against 20th place Xerez, confidence was at a season high. Apparently, someone forgot to tell Xerez that they were supposed to lie down at Racing’s expense, and with a quarter of an hour remaining, it was 2-2. Even more amazing than the score itself was that Xerez had only scored once away from El Chapín all season, and they doubled this amount in sixty-nine minutes. An Alexandre Geijo header in the 82nd minute, however, foiled Xerez’s attempt at a third road point, and Racing Santander rose from the relegation places to a tenuous fifteenth in the table.
Racing would have done well to get a result at El Sardinero against Villarreal to end the 2009 calendar year, and while they forced Villarreal to play for some stretches of the match, Villarreal comfortably dismissed the Cantabrians 2-0 in a match concerning two in-form teams. Despite the loss, six points out of nine going into the Christmas break gave Miguel Ángel Portugal and his men the impetus to continue with their decent play.
A hard-fought 2-0 win at home against lower table rivals Tenerife to start 2010 showed that Racing could string together a series of results. Looking at the situation with a skeptical eye, they achieved their wins against teams in the bottom rungs of the ladder, and their one truly quality opponent in this stretch, Villarreal, ran them off the pitch. Many, if not all, would have had little faith that they could stay with title contenders Sevilla at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán this past Saturday.
Sergio Canales received the backing of his manager, started in the trequartista position just behind the lone striker Xisco, and was flanked by Pedro Munitis on his right and Óscar Serrano on his left. While Sevilla dominated possession and bossed the game in Racing’s own half of the field, the Cantabrians were the ones who capitalized on their chances in the first half.
Before Canales scored the opening goal in the 26th minute, he fired well wide on three separate occasions, and while he can be faulted for his errant boot, he worked himself into the right positions to take the opportunities at goal. His positional sense rivals that of a world-class veteran, and at such a young age, this is truly remarkable.
The move started with Gonzalo Colsa, who played a diagonal ground ball from the midfield line to Pedro Munitis. The wily Munitis then played a through ball that sliced the Sevilla back line and sent Canales free for a one on one with Andrés Palop. At the vital moment, Canales decided to chip it over Sevilla goalkeeper and captain Andrés Palop, and that finesse shot was a wonderful finish.
As was their modus operandi throughout the match, Manolo Jiménez further enforced the attack, and Racing Santander’s second goal in the 38th minute further faded Sevilla’s increasingly slim hopes of a La Liga crown. Racing shredded the defense again, and Canales’ cool composure revealed the precocious nature of his ability. On the counter-attack, Munitis was fouled, but referee Manuel Mejuto González played the advantage, and Xisco’s cutting through-ball sent Canales on another free run. Palop decided to rush off his line, but Canales saw this and went around him, then cut back again when a Sevilla defender nearly caught up with him, and shot at the open net for the implausible 0-2 lead for the visitors.
Racing Santander had to hold on for the entire second half, as Sevilla put severe pressure on the Racing midfield and defense. Sevilla did get one goal back from Racing goalkeeper Fabio Coltorti’s minor error, but they held on just long enough to secure their biggest win of the season. As for Sevilla, they continued their slump in La Liga; their momentum from their Copa del Rey first leg win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou did not carry over, as again, they did not defeat a team they should beat.
Is it the inspiration of the new manager, Miguel Ángel Portugal? Is it the infusion of youthful exuberance with Sergio Canales featuring more in the starting eleven? Is it the relatively poor play of their opponents during this streak? As with most situations, there is always a combination of factors that contribute to success, but the defensive discipline instilled by the manager has been one of the major keys in Racing’s hot run. They love to counter-attack, especially with Munitis, Canales, and Serrano’s speed, but in order to best use their abilities, the defense needs to stand firm. Pablo Pinillos, the Racing captain and leader of the defensive line, has inspired a previously lifeless group, and their effort and spirit has led to more scoring chances.
The big European clubs are queuing up to snare Sergio Canales, but as most transfer news is merely distraction in January, Racing de Santander will only look forward, as the cliché goes, one game at a time. Despite the recent euphoria in Santander, they are only five points above the relegation zone, and a momentary dip in form will see them back in the dogfight to stay in Spain’s top division. They have to keep believing that they are fighting relegation throughout the rest of the season, even if they are in a nominally comfortable twelfth place as of this round. They cannot afford to rest on their laurels, but a galvanizing Racing de Santander brings an exciting element to La Liga for those who tire of the Barcelona – Real Madrid melodrama.