Bored of watching re-runs of Spain’s triumph at the Euros, we take a look back at an intriguing season, filled with surprises but not quite breaking the seemingly eternal La Liga duopoly.
1st: Real Madrid– This year Madrid finally managed to break Barca’s spell of dominance by winning the league, and leaving the Catalans to pick up the scraps of the Copa Del Rey, much like Madrid last season. The team is close to a perfect XI, with perhaps the only weak position being at right-back. In the Champions League, it was a similar story. Madrid brushed aside weak teams such as CSKA and Apoel and slipped up where it mattered most, against Bayern in the semi-final. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the ‘Special One’ intends to stay at least a season more to deliver the elusive ‘Decima’ (Madrid hover on 9 European titles). They will, as always, strengthen in the summer and come back more ready than ever to deliver the Champions League. Next year there will be the even more tantalising prospect for Mourinho of going head-to-head with the man who he poked in the eye; Tito Vilanova. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that Madrid and Barcelona have all the money in this league, and therefore can afford the better players. It was great to watch, but it did little to solve La Liga’s greatest problem. Season rating- A-.
2nd: Barcelona– By the end of the campaign, defeats against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final and teams such as Getafe and Osasuna in the league had tired Guardiola and Barcelona out. His side still managed to win the Spanish supercopa, World Club Championships and the Copa del Rey, but without the league the trophy cabinet felt frustratingly small. Real Madrid had pipped them to the post in the all-important competition, and they had been frustrated by the ‘Blue wall of resistance’ which they had come up against in the Champions League semi-final. Under the stewardship of Tito Vilanova (who will be hoping that he doesn’t get poked in the eye again by Mourinho), hopefully Barcelona can get back to their usual mesmeric self, but only with the help of all the under-performers this year feeding Leonel Messi, and perhaps the arrival of some new signings. Season rating- B-.
3rd: Valencia– Many talk of the dead heat of La Liga being in between the top two, but few recognise that Valencia have consistently come third in recent seasons. This year, they will have been regarded as spoilsports. Valencia’s football was far less attractive and romantic than that of Malaga and Levante, both a breath of fresh air for La Liga this season. So what can Valencia aspire to every year if they merely enter the Champions League group stages and get knocked out at the first hurdle, as well as finishing behind Barca and Madrid every year? The sale of star left-back Jordi Alba almost certainly, perhaps the sale of all-important goalscorer Soldado, and a new manager now that Unai Emery has left the club. Another mediocre season for the selling club, but at least there was some laughter for Valencia fans. Unfortunately, it came in the form of Ever Banega not putting the handbrake on, and his own car running over his foot. He was injured for the rest of the season. Season rating- C-.
4th: Malaga- This year, Malaga learnt more than ever that if you can’t beat them, join them. An underachieving club with few stand-out names for the past few seasons, a large sum of money was injected into their club last summer, which ultimately helped them reach the promised land of the Champions League. The best buy turned out to be former Villareal midfielder, Santi Cazorla, who has performed outstandingly for the Andalusian club this season. Ambitious signings such as Jeremy Toulalan, Natxo Monreal and Joaquin also helped, but at times it seemed as if Cazorla thought he had to do it all himself. Next season, a few more signings would not hurt. It is not all about transfers though. The club has an excellent academy and the club has been investing in youth, with a host of youth teams. Just last summer promising Spain U21 starlet Isco was recruited from Valencia and the club already seems to be onto a winner with home-grown wonderkid Recio. Although it seems like Salomón Rondón has been around forever, it is easy to forgot that he is only 22 years of age-he is confident and with the number of important goals he has put away this season, top European clubs could easily come knocking. No matter since Malaga have already started planning for a major new sports village, and while it seems doubtful, we could be mentioning their youth system in the same breath as the famous Masia or indeed La Fabrica soon. The future looks bright for one of the good-news stories of the 2011-12 La Liga. Watch this space. Season rating- A.
5th: Atletico Madrid– Following the loss of ‘Kun Aguero’ and cult hero Diego Forlan, Atletico fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the season was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, as Marca’s pre-season guide put it, this season, Atletico would have to ‘learn to live without Kun Aguero’. Instead, the board responded by signing proven goalscorer Radamel Falcao for €40million, fending off other big European clubs, and the exciting Spanish striking talent Adrian from the recently relegated Deportivo. The Turkish talisman Arda Turan and the Belgian goalkeeping youngster Thibaut Courtois were also brought in. But, as Atletico fans might have anticipated following the loss of two key players, things didn’t go so smoothly at first. The coach Gregorio Manzano and his team struggled to find their feet. Reyes’ bizarre outbursts about Manzano’s mother on the pitch fired at the manager, like a Year 7 in a playground, and Godin’s short temper hardly helped, but when Colchonero legend Diego Simeone was hired and Reyes got rid of, Atletico’s fortunes turned. The side just managed a 5th placed finish, which was commendable but far from where the board had wanted to be at the start of the season. Notably, they also reached a European final, where they calmly disposed of Bilbao, winning them a third European title in as many years. Simeone had earned himself further legendary status and Atletico had won the Europa League stylishly again, just as they did under the even more fashionable Quique Sanchez-Flores. Watch out Chelsea! Season rating- B.
6th: Levante– Far and away the most exciting good-news story of this season’s Liga. Whereas both Real Madrid and Malaga had money to spend, Levante did not. The same team of stragglers that only last season had been battling against relegation were, this year, battling for Champions League places. An excellent beginning to the season in which Levante went on an unlikely and amazing unbeaten run ended soon, but with Ivorian striker Arouna Kone the only major change in this side, Levante just managed a 6th placed finish. It seemed disappointing after people had pointed out that they could snatch a Champions League place, but in the end it did the team justice after also going on a bad run of form whilst they were in 4th place. In any case, European football seems all the more enticing considering where the club were this time last year. Fans are hopeful that they can stay together next year, and improve on the finish. Teams like Levante and Malaga vow to break the duopoly of La Liga. Levante deserve the highest rating. Season rating- A*.
7th: Osasuna- The gritty style of Osasuna and their manager meant that they were one point away from European qualification, but in the end it was just too much. Raul Garcia returned from Atletico Madrid to almost earn cult-hero status at Osasuna for the final few stages of the season, and proved to be the team from Navarra’s best player for some time. A win against Barcelona during the closing weeks of the season gave Madrid a helping hand from Pamplona, but this team will not be doing them any more favours next season if they stay together. Season rating- A-.
8th: RCD Mallorca- This team once again got up to its business in usual silent fashion. One of the high-points last year was holding Madrid to a goalless draw on the first match day. After a season in which the team sacked Michel Laudrup and replaced him with Joaquin Caparros, the final day meant that Mallorca had a vague chance of European qualification, but unfortunately they were drawn against Los Galacticos, who duly thrashed them. Is it too hopeful to think that this team could do a heroic Levante next year? Season rating-B.
9th: Sevilla FC– A few years ago I watched as Sevilla were knocked out of the Champions League qualifying stages by Sporting de Braga in a small Andalusian bar, whilst an old man behind me ate macaroni cheese. An odd anecdote perhaps, but I am sure that this man is the only constant to Sevilla’s recent campaigns. If you were to go to that bar at the start of the season I’m sure he would still be there, which is more than can be said for his consistently inconsistent side. Since that fateful qualifying tie in August 2010, Sevilla have failed to reach anything near this sort of level. They should really be challenging Valencia for a third-placed Champions League spot. Instead they are stuck in 9th place with a host of under-performing players. A heroic goalless draw against Barcelona in which their keeper saved a Leo Messi penalty couldn’t disguise the fact that this team really should be doing better. Season rating- B-.
10th: Athletic Bilbao– Under the leadership of Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic have become an attractive attacking force, and the Argentine recently signed a deal to keep him at the club until 2013. This year Bilbao reached the Europa League final , beating the likes of Manchester United along the way, and the Copa del Rey final, only to fall at the last hurdle. They succumbed 3-0 to Falcao’s Atletico Madrid (see above) and were firmly beaten by Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey. Even after their European heroics, a 10th placed finish didn’t quite seem to do the team justice. Retaining stars such as Llorente, Javi Martinez and Munian will be crucial for Bielsa’s side improving on their league finish. With the obsessiveness of Bielsa (he is reported to take exactly 13 steps every time he paces up and down the dugout) it is impossible to say that this attractive side will disintegrate next season. More of the same please, Bilbao. Season rating-B+.
11th: Getafe– Aside from that video and the ridiculous ‘Team Dubai’ re-branding scheme, Getafe were scarcely in the headlines. Staying in La Primera is a success for Getafe, but this season’s campaign had a distinct ‘meh’ tone to it. A solid, fairly boring season for one of the other Madrid teams, and one cannot help but feel that next season the club will attempt to draw in more crowds than this season’s dire average attendance, without spending big on many new players. But of course, if Hot Zombies make you happy, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Season rating- B-.
12th: Real Sociedad– Along with Espanyol, Real Sociedad have brought through some very exciting prospects this year. Although Carlos Vela seems to be out of luck, he looks like the sort of player Real Sociedad need after a season on loan at the club, and with the quality of young player that have played for Real Sociedad this season, expect another solid season under the underrated French coach Phillipe Montanier. Season rating- B.
13th: Real Betis– The Andalusian side were often on a poor run of form, but in the end they secured a mid-table finish, ensuring that they did not get sent down to the dreaded ‘Segunda’. 13th wasn’t the worst place to finish, especially after a season of inconsistency and worry. The side had already secured this place before the last few days, and so did not have to put up with the kind of doubts and mathematical relegation that could have been possible. Betis will be a nice side to have in La Primera next season. Season rating-B.
14th: Espanyol– Barcelona’s ‘other’ side looked destined for a coveted Europa League place (Liverpool and Tottenham take note) until several slip-ups ensured they finished behind Betis. It was a great shame, as the skilful and talented Philippe Coutinho might have been persuaded to be loaned out for a season more from Inter. Now they are in a bad financial position, and it is likely that Espanyol will not even touch the height of those European places next season. Season rating- C+.
15th: Rayo Vallecano– Their supporters were excellent whilst on the field Rayo disintegrated in the final stages of the season. Local boy Michu was excellent in midfield, prompting rumours that Manchester United would be chasing him this summer (in the end Swansea snapped him up, a great bit of business for the Welsh club). Although these rumours were proved wrong after United’s acquisition of playmaker Shinji Kagawa, Michu will have enjoyed playing in front of a faithful group of fans and will no doubt be following the club from his new TV set in Swansea. Season rating- B.
16th: Real Zaragoza- After a fairly disastrous start to the season, Zaragoza sacked manager Aguirre and replaced him with Jimenez. The board breathed a sigh of relief when Jimenez managed to secure safety on the final day of the season, and the coach was subsequently rewarded with a new contract. It remains to be seen whether Zaragoza can hold their own next season, but I have them earmarked for the drop. Their ugly 0-0 draws will not be enough for them next season, and serious changes are needed during the summer if they are to survive. Season rating-C.
17th: Granada– Granada’s partnership through the Pozzo family to Udinese is intriguing, and it looks like they will keep on taking players from the Italian side on loan next season, just as they did last time around. Otherwise, it was surprising to see Granada stay up after successive promotions, especially considering they did not win half of their games. Points against fellow relegation fighters proved vital in the end. Season rating-B+.
18th: Villareal- Last summer, Villareal had an all-important decision to make regarding two of their star players. Sell Santi Cazorla, the diminutive Spanish playmaker, or Giuseppe Rossi the diminutive Italian striker who was equally important to Villareal’s success. Cazorla was sold to Malaga, and the matter was brushed aside. Before long, Rossi was out for the rest of the season and Cazorla was weaving through opposition defences to send Malaga on their way to Champions League qualification. Even then, nobody truly believed that Villareal, a club who had not so long ago been challenging for La Liga title and had been in the semi-final of the Champions League, could be relegated. Even the combination of unlikely results which relegated Villareal on the final day of the season couldn’t spare their blushes. They had played badly all season and could make no excuses. Season rating- D.
19th: Sporting– Last season the manager and cult-hero of Sporting, Manolo Preciado, gained many admirers when he claimed the scalps of Real Madrid and indeed Barcelona. This season was much the same story for a side who were once one of Spain’s biggest clubs. Now they find themselves playing football in La Segunda. The season ended in tragedy, as a couple of weeks after the season’s finish, having taken up the reigns at Villareal, the witty and intelligent manager Preciado passed away. The man who had once been labelled as the ‘Spanish Ian Holloway’ for his courageous tactics against the big teams had been a great coach over his long spell in charge, and fully deserves his place in Gijon’s pantheon of legends. Hopefully, Sporting can bounce back next season for Preciado’s sake. Season rating- D+.
20th: Racing Santander- A disastrous season for a club which fully deserved the wooden spoon. Their deluded chairman Ali Syed turned up for a few games, waved a scarf and talked of putting Santander on the footballing map. Now, he is nowhere to be found as Racing prepare to play their football in the dreaded Segunda, a division which they have deserved to be in for a long time. In fact, if there is one thing that Blackburn Rovers fans can be happy with, it is that Syed failed in an attempt to buy the club two years ago. We can assure you, even the taste of Venky’s chicken is better than having this man as your president. Season rating- D-.