It was another brilliant season in La Liga, and one which will go down in history as the year that Atlético Madrid finally broke the duopoly between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Atlético’s success was remarkable, especially given their financial constraints (it is worth mentioning that they had a smaller budget than QPR this season) and the fact that they lost one of their best players last summer in Radamel Falcao. As well as winning the league, they reached the Champions League final, and, despite losing to Real, Diego Simeone’s side have defied expectation this season.
Although the loss of Falcao was seen as a big blow at the time, it actually benefitted the team. Diego Costa’s influence had often been stifled by the Colombian forward, and this season he was able to spread his wings, scoring 27 goals in La Liga (he had previously failed to score more than 10 in a single league season) and playing a huge part in Atleti’s success.
Likewise, Diego Simeone’s influence cannot be overstated. El Cholo has transformed the club, and the Argentine has cemented his place in Atleti folklore, surpassing his achievements as a player at the Vicente Calderón. He has succeeded in bringing unity to a club which was in a shambolic state when he arrived, and has given players such as Gabi and Tiago a new lease of life. While various names do stand out in this Atlético side, there is no one star player, and perhaps this is testament to the sense of togetherness that Simeone has created at the club.
The likelihood is that at least some of these names will depart this summer. The trio of Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Tiago looks set to leave for Chelsea, but this could mean that Atlético get to hold onto Thibaut Courtois for another season. Koke is being heavily monitored by Barça, while Miranda, one of the stalwarts of Atlético’s defence, has been linked with a move to England. Whatever happens to this group of talented players, they deserve credit for a fantastic season.
For all of Atlético’s qualities, Barça and Real underperformed in La Liga. While Ancelotti’s side managed to cover this up by winning the elusive Décima in a tense final against Atlético themselves, ending a 12-year wait for the trophy, Barça were not so lucky. Tata Martino’s side crashed out of the Champions League to Atlético, and lost the Copa del Rey final in the last few minutes thanks to a Gareth Bale dash from the halfway line. Such is the bizarre nature of La Liga that Barça actually had the chance to win the title on the final day of the season against Atlético, but Martino’s fate had already been sealed. The Catalan club have replaced him with Luis Enrique, who seems to be a better fit for them. He is well schooled in Barça’s methods, and introduced a number of youngsters into the first team at Celta, his previous club. Expect 2014-15 to be a more settled year of transition for Barça.
For Real Madrid, this season was only ever going to be about La Décima. Ancelotti was the perfect man for the job, in many ways representing the anti-Mourinho. Los Blancos were still shaking off some of the effects of Mourinho’s tenure in the first half of the season, and towards the end they allowed the Champions League to dominate their focus, as they resigned themselves to third place in La Liga. However, Ancelotti did well to calm the team down, and they were largely faultless in the Champions League, barring some nervy moments away to Borussia Dortmund, when the tie had virtually been won. Bale had a good first season after a shaky start, scoring the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final and the goal which put Real ahead in the Champions League final, making that world record transfer fee look slightly less ridiculous. Not bad for someone the Spanish press cruelly labelled ‘Forrest Gump’ after the first Clásico of the season.
Athletic Club were reinvigorated by new manager Ernesto Valverde and comfortably secured the final Champions League spot, playing some lovely football along the way. Ander Iturraspe was a vital part of Valverde’s starting eleven, and earned himself a place in Del Bosque’s preliminary World Cup squad, while the hugely promising Aymeric Laporte was one of the best centre-backs in Spain this season. Aduriz experienced something of a resurgence, scoring 16 goals in La Liga, and Susaeta and Muniain were also impressive. Athletic are on the up, and, if they do get through to the group stages of the Champions League, they will be a team to look out for.
Sevilla also played some very attractive football under Unai Emery and won the Europa League, with Ivan Rakitić in particular having a brilliant season. They fell short in qualifying for the Champions League, and their hopes next season will rest on whether or not they can keep Rakitić this summer, with a number of potential suitors lurking. Villarreal finished in sixth place after bouncing back up from Segunda, and were inspired by their manager Marcelino. Sadly Real Sociedad couldn’t repeat their achievements from last season, as they failed to juggle the challenges of domestic and European football.
As always, it was a tense battle at the bottom end of La Liga. Paco Jémez’s Rayo Vallecano did brilliantly to avoid the drop, even though they looked destined for relegation. Betis had a horrendous season, as they sacked first Pepe Mel and then Juan Carlos Garrido after just 47 days in charge of the club, finishing bottom. Valladolid were also relegated, and Juan Ignacio Martínez’s tactics won his side few admirers. Osasuna waved goodbye to La Liga following 14 seasons in Primera Division, and it was a shame to see such a proud club go down. A special mention should go to the newly promoted sides Elche, Almería and Villarreal, who all stayed up this year.
Unfortunately the ugly side of La Liga did rear its head again, with a number of racist insults and jibes coming from the stands. It tarnished what was otherwise a brilliant season for Spanish football, and the LFP (the league’s organisational body) have to do something about it.
Despite this, it was a great season for La Liga, and we can expect an equally competitive league next season. In the often overused words of Marca, ‘hay liga’. There is a league.