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In Winning the Battle Against Athletic Bilbao, Deportivo La Coruña May Have Lost the War in La Liga

Filipe Luis Kasmirski in better times.

Filipe Luís Kasmirski in better times.

The use of war imagery for the headline may not be appropriate during these sensitive times, but it aptly describes Deportivo La Coruña’s predicament as they conclude the first half of their season tied for fourth place, the final UEFA Champions League spot, with Mallorca on thirty-four points (Mallorca holds the tiebreaker over Depor with their 2-0 win at the ONO Estadi).  Depor’s squad is not particularly deep, and they will not win any beauty contests with their brand of football, but the efficacy of their football cannot be questioned.

Depor has conceded only nineteen goals through nineteen matches, which ranks them fourth in the league defensively; however, the twenty-three goals they have scored means that they have little margin to walk away with the victory.  Six 1-0 wins and thirteen matches that have concluded with a one-goal margin or a draw show that the line among a win, draw, or loss runs fine for the Galicians.  A moment of inspiration or a vital defensive stop decides many of their games.

Before they hosted the Basques at El Riazor, the long injury list worried manager Miguel Ángel Lotina.  Sergio González, Riki, and Mista have been out since early January, and the dynamic winger Andrés Guardado was still a long-term injury concern after Osasuna’s Javad Nekounam chopped him down and tore Guardado’s MCL.  Lotina hopes to rely on Guardado’s services by the beginning of March, but until then, the creativity would fall into the legs of Filipe Luís Kasmirski.

With a clash between Deportivo La Coruña and Athletic Bilbao, most would expect physicality and full-blooded challenges, and the first forty-five minutes certainly did not disprove these assumptions.  Los Leones controlled the game on both sides of the pitch, and Fernando Llorente spoiled numerous opportunities that would be considered more than half-chances.  The assistant referee took a goal away from Gaizka Toquero for an offside call, but replays showed the call to be inconclusive at best, and Athletic was unlucky not to score the opening goal.

Depor had few extended spells of possession and did little to suggest that they would threaten Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz’s net.  The litany of absences began to manifest itself in Depor’s tedious play and demeanor.  Fortunate to be scoreless at halftime, that would be the only positive that Miguel Ángel Lotina could muster in his team talk.  Lotina would have been in his right to castigate his players with the most severe words in the Spanish language, and they could not have any response to him.  If nothing else, Los Blanquiazules have the uncanny ability to hang around when all else fails.

When Depor scored in the 49th minute to take the 1-0 lead, it was fully undeserved in the context of this match, but the wasted chances by Athletic Bilbao eventually came back to bite them.  From the left flank, Pablo Álvarez’s shot deflected to the right edge of the six-yard box and found Rodolfo Bodipo, who headed it across goal toward the surging Filipe Luís at the left post.  Filipe got the touch ahead of Gorka Iraizoz as he tried to slap the ball away and bundled it over the line from three yards out.

The celebration lasted a mere second as everyone on and off the pitch fully realized what occurred at the end of that sequence.  As Filipe touched the ball past Iraizoz, Iraizoz dove in a vain effort to divert the ball off its path to goal.  He landed on Filipe’s lower leg, and it was pinned underneath Iraizoz.  Not evident from the initial camera angle the extent of the injury, the second camera angle displayed the gruesome nature of Filipe’s disfigurement.  Sparing the gory details, Filipe Luís Kasmirski will not play for the rest of the season and will likely dash his chances of playing in the World Cup at South Africa for Brazil.  He only had one international cap to his name, a substitute appearance in a friendly against Estonia last August, but Dunga considered the possibility of adding Filipe to the squad.

Filipe’s teammate Zé Castro, looking on from the bench, needed to ask the team on the pitch what exactly transpired, and when he received the news, all he could do was put his hands on his mouth and stare with horror and concern for his fallen friend.  Lotina fought tears as he buried his face into his trembling hands, not the least bit concerned about the match while agonizing over the pain and suffering felt by Filipe.  Chairman and President Augusto César Lendoiro could hardly keep his emotions to a minimum as he rubbed his eyes and observed the ghastly complexion of the situation.  The fans respectfully chanted Filipe’s name, likely knowing that they would not see him on the field again this season.

To Depor’s credit, they channeled their sadness into productivity on the pitch.  They dominated the second half and won a whirlwind encounter 3-1 in a match where European places could be on the line at the end of the season.  The euphoria that Depor would feel after a victory over Athletic Bilbao was tempered by the news that Filipe Luís’ injury was a fractured and dislocated ankle.

Speaking after the match to AS, Augusto Lendoiro lent words of encouragement for Filipe: “Filipe is strong, fast and powerful.  We want a speedy recovery so that he can go to the World Cup.  We have to be strong, and we expect to see him play again this season.  We are only thinking about his misfortune, and not a possible replacement.”

Miguel Ángel Lotina, blunt by nature, spoke to AS about the impact of Filipe’s loss: “I would rather have just twenty points and Filipe fit.  Filipe is a great person and he was eager to go to the World Cup.  There is nothing to celebrate tonight.”

Stating how he would rather be near the relegation zone than have Filipe injured exhibits both the importance and the respect that Lotina has for the Brazilian fullback. With the loss of Filipe, their best and most valuable player this campaign, for the rest of the season, Deportivo La Coruña’s players will need to dig deeper into their souls to make up for his loss and maintain their position in the league.

The captain Manuel Pablo will likely move from his natural right back position to fill Filipe’s shoes at left back, and Laure will likely take the mantle at right back.  The four players with the most starts in the league for Depor have been the four defensive starters, and with this sudden change to the back line, the consistency and rhythm that the Depor defense displayed all season will take time to rebuild that same chemistry.  With the pillars crumbling down on the house of Deportivo La Coruña, a second-half slump would not surprise the most ardent of Depor supporters.

The city in which they play, however, has a history of winning despite tremendous odds.  When Napoléon Bonaparte and his invincible French army ran rampant throughout the Western world, his army descended upon A Coruña in the Peninsular War to seize Galicia and cut off British support sailing to the northwest of Spain.  Led by Sinforiano López, A Coruña became the only Galician city to fight off Napoléon’s army successfully, and the French eventually forsook Galicia later in the war.

If this relatively modest city defeated one of the most imperious leaders in human history, surely Deportivo La Coruña can find the inner strength necessary to carry on from their injury woes.  If Depor is able to seize that final Champions League spot, this team will be exalted to those “Super Depor” teams that consistently threatened to win La Liga and European titles.

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