The final place in Spain’s top division will go to either Girona or Elche, who’ll meet over two legs between Thursday and Sunday.
The semi-finals of the LaLiga SmartBank promotion playoffs have been completed with two relative ‘upsets,’ with fifth-placed Girona FC defeating fourth-placed Almería UD 3-1 on aggregate and with sixth-placed Elche CF eliminating third-placed Real Zaragoza 1-0. This certainly isn’t the first time the lower-ranked teams have made it to the playoff final, or even promotion: fifth-placed Real Valladolid went up in 2018, while sixth-placed RCD Mallorca secured promotion back in 2019.
But who’ll secure the third and final promotion spot this time around? It’ll be decided over two legs this coming week, with the first leg taking place at Elche’s Manuel Martínez Valero Stadium on Thursday and the second leg at Girona’s Montilivi ground on Sunday.
The finalists’ history
Both the finalists have recent experience of being in Spain’s top division, especially Girona. The club from the north-eastern city in the region of Catalonia of the same name were only relegated from the top flight last year, after a two-year stint at the top level.
Those two seasons, though, were the only ones in the Blanquivermells’ history in which they competed at the highest level of Spanish football. Before then, they’d spent most of their existence moving up and down between the third and fourth tiers, before establishing themselves as a LaLiga SmartBank club from 2008 to 2017, at which point they secured that historic first-ever promotion to LaLiga Santander.
An immediate return to LaLiga Santander would mean a lot for Girona, especially with the club celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2020. A part of the City Football Group, the club is on the up and has invested heavily in training facilities and its academy.
Elche, meanwhile, last experienced top-flight football in 2014/15, finishing a very creditable 13th but suffering an administrative demotion due to economic mismanagement. They’ve turned their finances around in recent years and are now led by director general Patricia Rodríguez, who’d previously become the first female CEO of a LaLiga Santander club with Eibar.
Elche boast a much greater top-flight trajectory than Girona’s two seasons, having spent a total of 21 campaigns competing at the highest level of Spanish football. Their first experience at the top came in the 1959/60 season and they remained there until 1971, even finishing as high as fifth in 1963/64. Despite occasionally returning to the top flight in the 1970s and 1980s, Elche embarked on a 24-year absence from that division between 1989 and 2013, even spending time in Spain’s third tier.
Then came the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, before their administrative demotion back to LaLiga SmartBank. The Franjiverdes even returned to the third tier for one season in 2017/18, before eventually shifting the momentum and embarking on their current upward trajectory. The club has long been considered a sleeping giant: their Manuel Martínez Valero stadium screams “top-flight!” too, with a capacity of over 33,000.
How did they get here?
Both of these teams started the 2019/20 campaign slowly. A third of the way through the season, Girona and Elche found themselves 13th and 14th respectively, but a strong run of form through the winter saw them rise into the playoff spots when the coronavirus-enforced break struck before consolidating their positions following the restarts.
Elche made their playoff final run with the same coach at the helm throughout the season, Juan José Rojo Martín, more commonly known as ‘Pacheta.’ Girona have changed coaches throughout the season, and are currently led by former Huesca boss Francisco, their fourth coach of the campaign.
What to expect from Girona?
Girona are a team built around their star man, Uruguayan center forward Cristhian Stuani. The Catalan club were able to keep their top-class striker even after last year’s relegation and the 33-year-old has had an excellent season with a division-leading 29 goals in the regular season and two of the Blanquivermells’ goals in their 3-1 semi-final victory over Almería. Logically, the team is built around Stuani and they play many crosses into the area for him to pounce.
Holding it all together in midfield, meanwhile, are Gerard Gumbau and Álex Granell, who have formed a solid duo that Elche will have to overcome if they’ll want to have any chance of securing promotion.
What to expect from Elche?
Coach Pacheta has been at the club since February 2018 and has put in place a very defined style of play, opting mostly for a 4-4-2 formation.
Leading the line is the evergreen 40-year-old striker Nino, a club legend and all-time top scorer who first played for the club all the way back in 1998 before spells at Levante, Tenerife, and Osasuna, ahead of his return to the Manuel Martínez Valero in 2016. Despite his age, he remains a highly effective frontman and scored the winning goal in the semi-final playoff tie against Real Zaragoza, his eighth of the season.
Also, key in that semi-final and throughout the season was goalkeeper Edgar Badia, the stopper with the most saves in all LaLiga SmartBank this season. His late Panenka-style penalty saves against Zaragoza in the second leg of the semi-final allowed Elche to keep dreaming of promotion.