It was another crazy season in La Liga, which on the one hand provided us with non-stop entertainment, but on the other did little to address the duopoly in Spanish football, while the Spanish sides’ humiliating exits at the semi-final stage of the Champions League prompted many to prematurely label this as the end of an era for Spanish football. It was a season filled with excitement, from Atletico finally ending their 14-year hoodoo by beating an exasperated Real Madrid side in the Copa Del Rey final, to last-minute equalisers, a grouchy Portuguese coach imitating Neville Chamberlain, and plenty of inventive scorelines. All in all, this was a season to remember for Spanish football.
At the top, Barcelona stormed to the league title by reaching 100 points despite losing their manager Tito Vilanova halfway through the season because of cancer treatment. Some statistics suggest that Vilanova’s Barca are better than Guardiola’s, but, as is often the case, these can be misleading, and the season was marred by an underwhelming semi-final exit against Bayern and a collapse in the second half of the season which had a lot to do with the loss of the player that Barça have relied on for so long: Leo Messi.
Although Barcelona have taken a significant step away from Messidependencia by signing the much-coveted Neymar, there was very little done by Vilanova this season to ease the pressure on the world’s best player, who often had to play with a knock; for instance, to come off the bench against PSG, and grab the goal which settled the tie, or against Athletic Bilbao. Barça have other problems too. Neymar is undoubtedly an exciting signing, but many feel that signing a world-class defender such as Thiago Silva is more important if Barca are to shake off the allegations of a ‘changing of the guard’ in the Champions League. Puyol is injury-prone and the squad is thin, so signing a Mats Hummels or a Thiago Silva is a major priority. Although some would point to promising youngsters such as Marc Bartra and Martín Montoya, it is clear that they still require time to settle into the first team, however much talent they possess.
Jose Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid came to a bitter end as city rivals Atletico finally managed to beat Real in a historic Copa Del Rey final. Mourinho clearly didn’t enjoy his time in the Spanish capital, failing to gain the backing of older players and encountering some huge egos in the squad. The high point came last season when he managed to topple Barcelona with a record points total, but this season was a very different story. Key players such as Iker Casillas were alienated as others just failed to perform. Mou’s abrasive style with the media did him no favours, but some of his points were valid. It is true that some players and indeed the press have far too much influence at the Bernabéu. It is also true that Iker Casillas was on a downward spiral due to a lack of competition, and that players should be picked for their efforts, not their status. During the brief spell in which Mourinho was forced to play the Spanish captain, he looked far more focussed from the kick up the backside that the Portuguese coach had given him by playing Adán as first-choice. Of course, that was the moment when Casillas was sidelined for three months, and Diego López was brought in to cover during his absence. López has been outstanding, especially considering the pressure that he has had to endure in replacing San Iker, a Madrid darling, perhaps vindicating Mourinho’s decision to replace Casillas in the first place. Ultimately Real Madrid got lucky in snatching a second-place finish despite an awful away record. However, the problems in the dressing room could not be masked in the Champions League, as Madrid bowed out in the semi-finals having been humbled by Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of the clash.
The Copa Del Rey win and the banishing of an old ghost capped an impressive season for Atlético Madrid. However, it must be dispiriting for Atlético to finish nine points behind their closest rivals having looked as if they would finish above Real Madrid in second place for most of the season, and with Los Blancos having produced such a mediocre campaign compared to their neighbours. Losing Radamel Falcao to Monaco will be a blow for Los Colchoneros, but losing world-class ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois or Atleti legend Diego Simeone would have bigger implications, and the general consensus among fans is that Falcao moving to a ‘bigger’ club (or in this case an incredibly wealthy one run by a Russian oligarch with the promise of big money and a tax haven) was inevitable. The former, on loan from Chelsea, was instrumental last season and had an incredible game in the cup final. He looks set to displace Petr Cech at Chelsea in the long term, but recently agreed to stay another year at the Vicente Calderon, where he will be guaranteed more playing time and further development under charismatic coach Diego Simeone. The manager’s record speaks for itself. The Argentine has now won three trophies for Atlético (1 Copa Del Rey, 1 Europa League and 1 UEFA Supercup) in his one-and-a-half-year spell at the club, equal to Mourinho’s haul during three years at Real Madrid.
|Real Sociedad have been magnificent this season.|
Last year it was Levante, and this year it was Real Sociedad, the team from San Sebastián, who were La Liga’s success story. In fact, La Real have surpassed Levante’s efforts, implementing a much more attractive style of football whilst also achieving a 4th placed finish and Champions League football in the process.
Under the tutelage of dynamic young manager Phillipe Montanier, the squad has been transformed. Defenders Carlos and Iñigo Martínez (completely unrelated) have blossomed. Carlos Martínez was one of the most underrated players and was also the best right-back in La Liga last season while centre-back Iñigo Martínez continues to attract the interest of Spain’s top two clubs and many others with his excellent reading of the game and aerial ability (as well as a fierce long shot) despite his lack of pace. In defensive midfield, Asier Illarramendi has been superb, and, whilst it is sometimes short-sighted to refer to a player as the ‘next’ so-and-so, he genuinely looks as if he will take up the mantle from Xabi Alonso on an international level.
Up front, the attacking trio of Antoine Griezmann, Carlos Vela and the talismanic Xabi Prieto have flourished. That is without even mentioning Imanol Agirretxe, the towering striker who has arguably been the unsung hero of this team. At first glance the burly Basque does not look as if he would fit into such a stylish outfit, but his delightful, ice-cool chip against Valencia and much-improved goal tally (14 goals this season in La Liga as opposed to 10 last season) suggest otherwise.
It is fair to say that no Real Sociedad game has been boring this season, the highlight being the 5-4 win over Barcelona, one of only two losses in La Liga for the eventual league champions. The 4-star UEFA rated Anoeta stadium, whilst sometimes lacking in atmosphere due to the athletics track which surrounds the pitch, will be welcome in the Champions League group stages next season if the team from San Sebastián can make it past the qualifying rounds. Remember gooners, if you’re drawn against the Txuri-Urdin, we did warn you.
Real Sociedad’s 4th placed finish came at the cost of Valencia, for whom the drop to the Europa League could have disastrous financial implications. Los Che already have a huge debt, and Champions League football was a necessity if this deficit was to be kept at bay. Now, with the summer transfer window already well underway, it seems as if Valencia will have to sell some key players. The name being mentioned in every gossip column is that of Roberto Soldado, who narrowly missed out on the Zarra trophy this season for the top Spanish goalscorer and is a target for Spurs. The club are keen to hold onto him, but a £25 million bid from Tottenham could test their resolve, and, at 28, Soldado is unlikely to have many more opportunities to play in the Premier League. Hopefully this campaign will serve as a reality check for Valencia, whose philosophy as a ‘selling club’ means they have not threatened in the Champions League despite qualifying most years.
The same can be said for Sevilla, who have built up a similar reputation in recent years. The crucial difference, being, of course, that despite having a squad which really should be challenging for those places, Sevilla have failed to qualify for Europe’s premier competition for the last three years. However, with the absurd management of both clubs at boardroom level, expect next season to be depressingly similar. Málaga had an impressive season given their financial problems, and were rallied around by the now-Man City manager Manuel Pellegrini, who inspired his team to a 6th placed finish despite a gutting Champions League exit at the hands of Dortmund. Paco Jémez had a similarly galvanising effect on Rayo Vallecano, combining youngsters and journeymen seamlessly on a very tight budget. Rayo are arguably the only other team that could challenge Sociedad for surprise package of the season. Unfortunately both Málaga and Rayo Vallecano failed to make it into Europe despite finishing in what would ordinarily be European places. Malaga were banned from European football for two years after failing to pay player’s wages and tax bills on time, and Rayo Vallecano were denied a UEFA license.
The relegation places were decided on a frantic last day, as Mallorca, Deportivo and Zaragoza all went down. It was a shock to see the Giovianni Dos Santos-inspired Mallorca go down, especially after such a strong start to the season. For Deportivo, a late resurgence due to the appointment of Fernando Vazquez (the manager brilliantly dubbed as ‘Harry Potter’ by the Spanish media- you might see why, although it seems as if the Spanish media have never seen somebody wearing glasses before) wasn’t enough to save the plucky team from La Segunda, while Zaragoza suffered a torrid run in the second half of the season which condemned them to relegation.
|No, not really.|
It was an exciting La Liga season, and next year we can expect more of the same, despite high-profile exits such as those of Jose Mourinho, Radamel Falcao and Jesus Navas. Admittedly, La Liga may not be the best league in the world, and it is currently dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the philosophies implemented by many teams near the top and bottom are what make it such a fun and vibrant league to watch. Whilst it may not live up to its slogan of ‘la liga que mueve al mundo’ (the league that makes the world go round) it is still captivating, and Spain U21’s triumph in the European Championships proved that this isn’t the ‘end of an era’. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, next season will be the year when the duopoly is broken.