Fallen giants Deportivo endure new low but worse could come

·3-min read

(Reuters) - Deportivo La Coruna hit a new low in a litany of recent disappointments on Sunday when they missed the chance to return to the second division and Spanish football's fallen giants now face a frantic finish to avoid sinking to even lower depths.

La Liga winners 21 years ago and Champions League semi-finalists as recently as 2004, Deportivo last year fell into the dreaded regionalised third tier (Segunda Division B) and this season went 628 minutes without scoring a goal.

Their dismal form left them in danger of an unthinkable relegation to the fifth tier of Spanish football due to the federation's radical redesign of the lower leagues which comes into place next season.

A late rally avoided that fate but even with three consecutive wins in their final three games they could only finish fourth in their 10-team division, missing out on the playoffs by one point.

Most humiliatingly, they finished behind the reserve team of hated local rivals Celta Vigo.

Deportivo will now be placed in a mini-league containing three other teams and must finish among the top two to reach the RFEF Primera. Otherwise they will drop into the fourth-tier RFEF Segunda.

"The reality is we have to lift ourselves back up right away. We might be disappointed but there's no time for us to mope," said coach Ruben de la Barrera.

Deportivo's fall from grace has been particularly difficult to digest after a golden period in the 90s and early 21st century, in which they became one of Spain's top sides and major force in Europe.

They agonisingly missed out on the La Liga title on the final day of the 1993-94 season after missing a penalty but made amends by capturing the championship in 2000.

In 2004 they staged one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history, overturning a 4-1 deficit with AC Milan in a quarter-final first leg to thrash the Italian side and holders 4-0 at a raucous Riazor stadium.

They lost the semi-final to Jose Mourinho's Porto and a period of mid-table obscurity followed until the team were relegated in 2011, ending two decades in the top-flight.

Things have never quite been the same since and the club's financial situation continued to worsen, leading to local bank Abanca assuming ownership last year.

"Football has no memory," said club captain Alex Bergantinos, who joined the club in 2004 and has witnessed their remarkable downward spiral first hand.

Now, he is focused on damage limitation after a chaotic 12 months.

"It's hard to swallow but given how the year has gone, getting into Primera RFEF would be a very important cushion for us," he added.

"At the start of the season we'd see staying in the division as a failure given what people expect of Depor. But earlier in the season when things were at their worst we'd have signed up to being where we are."

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)