Mallorca’s play off charge took a huge blow this afternoon, being held at home by the cynical Elche CF in an eventful game which the referee struggled to wrestle control of throughout. Following a favourable set of Saturday results for our promotion rivals, with Malaga picking up a point away from home and Cadiz beating Albacete, Mallorca found themselves 5 points off the play offs at kick off. Now, more than ever, they needed their home form to hold firm.
It was evident early on that Elche CF arrived at Son Moix with a clear game plan to press, push two players up at goal kicks and prevent Mallorca from playing out from the back. That, combined with the strong wind blowing in the face of Manolo Reina, restricted Mallorca’s ability to pass the ball out from the back. Elche CF dominated the ball in the early stages and contested every moment, forcing Mallorca to play the ball long towards Ante Budimir who looked an isolated figure.
The warning signs were there for Mallorca who seemed to allow their opponents time on the ball, in contrast to Elche CF’s ‘in your face’ approach. This team is crying out for a more combative ‘dog of war’ to do the dirty work and allow the team the platform to play from, something that we see in the results achieved away from Son Moix.
There was a sense of something coming for Elche as they made attack after attack. Joan Sastre gave the ball inexplicably to Elche, playing it blindly back to Martin Valjent. Fortunately for Mallorca, and Sastre, Elche CF could only fire over. Mallorca did not heed the warning and from almost the next attack Elche CF got the deserved reward for their start to the game. Picking it up in the midfield, Ivan Sanchez ghosted past Salva Sevilla with a weak attempt at a challenge, cut inside both central defenders and had all the time in the world to shoot into the bottom corner. Conceding at any time is bad enough, but to do it without anyone attempting a challenge or to get a block on the ball is inexcusable.
Elche CF were in no mood to stop and just a minute later they had another strike from distance under no pressure from the defence which was heading for the bottom corner until a scrambling Reina tipped it just around the post. With 20 minutes gone this was easily the least football Mallorca had played in an opening 20 minutes at Son Moix this season. Elche CF’s high pressure game was proving very successful and the home side looked devoid of ideas to break through it.
On 27 minutes, Mallorca finally mustered their first attempt on goal. Playing out from the back and evading the Elche CF press for once, Valjent finds Dani Rodriguez who clips it wide to Aridai Cabrera who pulls it back and for strike on goal from Budimir which is blocked by the defender before it can test the keeper.
Finally, Mallorca have awoken and upped the tempo of their play. Previously their ponderous play was easy for Elche CF to pressure and was forcing errors and long balls from the home side. Winning cheap fouls, taking quick free kicks, moving the ball quicker and switching the play across from side to side started to restrict the effectiveness of Elche CF’s pressing game.
Mallorca started to grow into the game, awoken by Elche CF’s opening goal. Salva clipped a free kick into the box and, in what was to become a theme, the loose ball didn’t drop close to any of the Vermillion side. As Mallorca got into better positions, the quality of the final ball became an issue, non more culpable than Aridai who wasted a number of good positions down the right.
Vicente Moreno will have been glad for the opportunity to get his side in at half time and it was clear that tactical changes were needed. Alex Lopez replaced the ineffective Aridai after the break, bringing about a change of shape to a 4-3-3 formation. This would allow the full backs to push up into the space in front of them and provide width.
The change improved things dramatically from minute one of the half. Lopez flicks a header on, Budimir latches onto it in a good position but inexplicably dallies on the ball and doesn’t get shot away from outside the box. Lopez’s presence gave Elche CF more to think about with two targets to hit and this began to create problems for the away side and created space on the outside.
Sastre takes advantage of this brilliantly after a terrific diagonal ball, a fantastic touch to control and then a low drilled cross, touched on and half blocked half saved by the Elche CF defensive unit. The pressure is building and the only way Elche CF seem to know to deal with it is to scythe down player after player. The referee, given no choice, produces yellow card after yellow card. Something more is coming for Elche CF, with so many players on a yellow card it became inevitable that they wouldn’t finish with 11.
Mallorca’s lack of ability in the air continues to thwart them, today in attack more than defence. Headed chances fall to Antonio Raillo and Alex Lopez, both unable to capitalise deep inside the Elche CF box. Elche CF are still in the game though and on the counter make use of the new space afforded to them in the wide areas on a number of occasions, shooting over or wide.
Alex Lopez is like a man possessed, getting involved in every attack. The signing of Budimir has clearly provided the motivation he needed to up his game. Receiving the ball down the right, he beat his man and crossed low for Budimir to tap in at the near post under pressure from the defender. Mallorca are back in the game and all of the momentum is with them. At this stage there looked to be only one winner.
Mallorca’s momentum from the beginning of the half started to slip away. Maintaining that intensity for an entire 45 minutes was always going to be a challenge and the game was becoming more end to end. Then, in the most unexpected of circumstances, the inevitable happened. Elche CF’s Yacine Qasmi received a second yellow card, this one for diving trying to win a penalty in the Mallorca box. With so many poor challenges from Elche CF and the referee throwing cards around like confetti it had been coming, it was just a matter of when.
Following the sending off and with Marc Pedraza having received his customary booking, his 9th of the season, he was replaced by Leo Suarez. Despite this being a tactical change with Mallorca chasing the game, Pedraza has not got past 70 minutes in any of his last three appearances and there is clearly a concern over him when on a booking. With the referee giving cards out like it was Christmas, Moreno made the sensible choice. Leo Suarez made an instant impression with a driving run into the box a sharp shot bringing an excellent save from the goalkeeper who tipped over.
Having gained the momentum through positive play at the beginning of the half, the sending off should have sparked a further period of danger for Elche CF. However, Mallorca had fallen into old habits and were again moving the ball too slowly, allowing Elche back into shape and having to attack ten men who were all behind the ball.
What followed was a period of heavy possession from Mallorca where they would carve out a number of half chances, at best. Lopez, fouled, went down on the edge of the box like there was a sniper in crowd. From the resulting free kick, Salva clipped it over the bar. Time was running out, with Elche CF using every trick in the book to slow the game down and it seemed that Mallorca wouldn’t create that killer last chance. Mallorca finally decided that shooting from distance might bring them a winner, with Salva firing inches wide, Suarez and Dani Rodriguez attempting the same, followed by Elche CF players throwing themselves in front of everything that moved.
In the end, there was one final chance and despite all of the possession, it is handed to Alex Lopez on a plate by the Elche CF defence. A ball is clipped into the box and flicked back to the goalkeeper by the head of the Elche CF defender. Lopez latches onto it and just needs to touch it either side of the goalkeeper from six yards under no pressure for a certain winner with the best chance of the 90 minutes, but he can only head it straight at the goalkeeper.
The referee blew the final whistle to shocked quiet from the Son Moix crowd, in disbelief that Mallorca failed to win a game in which they were so dominant in the second half. The last time they failed to win at home was the 8th of December, then in controversial circumstances vs Malaga. This time, they had nobody but themselves to blame. They had been made to pay for being tactically out thought in the first 30 minutes and through failing to create enough clear openings despite their dominance in the second half.
In light of the results from yesterday, Mallorca can now see the 6th position slipping tantalisingly away from them as the season moves towards it’s conclusion. They should be happy that they have kept pace this deep into the season after promotion from Segunda B and the over reliance on home form was always going to make it difficult as the season went on. It will take a win next week against Real Oviedo and a dramatic turn around in their away form to claw the points deficit back. All is not lost, but things just go a hell of a lot harder.