La Liga, última jornada: The relegation showdown that never was…

by Joseph Sexton

Don’t believe the hype.

In another Spanish season where the title march was a procession, where Real Madrid came second in a one-horse race, where the top two shellacked all in sight, dropping a ridiculous total of 40 points (out of a possible total of 228) between them, we wanted something to look forward to.

Villarreal and Valencia had occupied the remaining Champions League berths since the 18th of the December; matchday 16, and the last before the winter break. Almería had been doomed for weeks. But the relegation battle had proved intriguing. Getafe, who had been close to the Europa League spots in March, had slipped close to the abyss, along with Real Sociedad who’s strong first half showing was too a distant memory. Mallorca, preposterously, had followed them. One place for the drop to the Liga Adelante remained. Six clubs were at risk. The amount of possible permutations, rendered even more confusing by primacy of head-to-head records was simply mind-boggling. We expected something to look forward to as the final day’s relegation battle got underway.

Unfortunately nobody told Valencia’s Aritz Aduriz. A mere four minutes were on the clock at the Riazor when the former Mallorca forward slotted the ball home to put visiting Valencia into the lead. The stadium descended into a deathly silence.

And well it might. Deportivo might just be the most boring team in La Liga these past two seasons, a sad state of affairs for a team once famed for their swashbuckling brand of attacking football. A team synonymous with names like Diego Tristán, Bebeto, Djalminha, Roy Makaay, Albert Luque (stop sniggering, Geordies. He was once rather good; honest!), and Juan Carlos Valeron at his peak is now the team of… Riki. Once Super Depor, they are now just a super bore. They don’t concede much, that it is true- 10 teams who finished above them (including all three of next season’s Europa League qualifiers) have a poorer record in this regard. But they also can’t score to save their lives; literally so, as it proved on the night. 31 goals in 38 matches left them tied with Leo Messi, and 9 behind this season’s pichichi Cristiano Ronaldo. And it’s not just this season either; last year saw a marginally better return of 35, whereas the previous season’s respectable 7th finish saw a moderate 47. Frankly, watching Depor has become something of a chore, and this is why they’ll be plying their trade in the Liga Adelante next term.

And of course, it had to be Valencia. Valencia who had broken their hearts on the final day of the 1993/94 season, denying them a first La Liga title courtesy of Miroslav Djukic’s last gasp spot kick miss. They huffed, they puffed. They threw men forward with an abandon not seen in these parts for many a year. And then in the depths of injury time, Roberto Soldado- a curious absentee from this week’s national squad list- stepped up to administer the coup de grace. Valeron, the one remaining link from a happier time when the Galician club were one of Europe’s most feared sides slumped to the turf as the whistle went. The dream was over. And it was extinguished without so much as a whimper.

It is hard to see where Depor can go from here. The squad is light and distinctly lacking in quality. The money which enabled them to punch above their weight for so long has long dried up. A provincial side, hailing from a city of some 250,000 people, their rise had been meteoric; their fall protracted and painful. Their Galician rivals, Celta de Vigo have languished in the lower tier for several years now and it will be of no consolation to anyone in A Coruña to see that rivalry renewed. They join Hércules and the comically poor Almería in making the drop, with Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano confirmed to go up. Agonisingly, they might not even have a derby to look forward to; for in the final standings, Celta squeezed ahead of Valladolid to make the final promotion play-off place.

As for other highlights, well, there was Kun Aguero’s fantastic hat-trick against Mallorca in what now appears to have been his final game for Atlético de Madrid. Speaking of hat-tricks, Manolito Adebayor signed off from his loan tenure at Real Madrid with one of his own in an 8-1 pummeling of Almería. But of course the real story there was Cristiano Ronaldo notching up goals 39 and 40 of a phenomenal season to finally smash the record held by Hugo Sanchez and Telmo Zarra to the satisfaction of all outside the Marca editorial team. This takes the Portuguese up to preposterous total of of 66 goals in 63 league games since joining the meringue, and a barely believable 86 from 89 in all competitive matches.

Since the final curtain fell on this season’s domestic campaign we’ve been treated to flurry of comings and goings, and signs of plenty more to come. Real Madrid, having already secured the services of Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop the previous week, are reported to have secured the services of Benfica flyer Fábio Coentrão, if reports from Portugal’s A Bola are anything to go by. Across town, the story has been even more dramatic. On Monday, talisman Sergio Aguero handed in a transfer request and at this early stage a crosstown switch to el Real looks distinctly likely. Meanwhile, much to everyone’s expectations, goalkeeper David De Gea’s transfer to Manchester United for some €20m was confirmed late on Tuesday. Manager Quique Sanchez Flores exited the club, with erstwhile nemesis and Atleti icon turned persona non grata, Diego Forlán, surely set to follow.

Wednesday’s big news saw Real’s sporting director Jorge Valdano fired, no doubt the great pleasure of José Mourinho. Valdano was at pains to state the move was not of his choosing, “I am not the one who turned Real Madrid into a battlefield. All my efforts this season were directed toward restraint,” he continued. “It has been a long time since I have spoken personally to Mourinho. We greet each other politely, but he sought to deal with people other than me. My responsibilities with the first team were reduced. I did not feel comfortable in that situation.”

Florentino Perez summed the move up as being inevitable given the naked contempt that has existed between the Argentine World Cup winner and the club’s superstar manager. “We have decided to end the contractual relationship with Jorge Valdano. The experience of this season has shown the need for a new organisational structure giving authority to the coach and avoiding dysfunctions” he said, his use of the word ‘dysfunction’ echoing the sentiment of Mourinho in a concurrence that will surely hurt his long time lieutenant as he departs. “I do not want to hide the pain I feel at the exit of Jorge Valdano, but my feelings cannot be a reason for not taking the necessary decisions. There were two people filling a sporting role between whom there was no understanding. Ignoring the evidence is not practical for anyone.”

Recognising such nuanced matters as practicalities? Surely this must be a first for construction chief.

It’s not just Quique who’ll be looking for a new job before the coming season begins. Sevilla’s Gregorio Manzano- who presided over a fine second half of the campaign after initially struggling to steady the ship having being appointed following the club’s poor start- was stoical in his response to not being offered the extension his efforts had surely merited. “They gave me no reason, and i didn’t ask for any either”, he said. “I don’t feel abandoned. This is how football goes”. Up in the Basque County, Real Sociedad parted ways with Martín Lasarte. His side had endured a brutal finish to the campaign but in truth, hovering around the Europa League spots had represented a false position for a newly promoted side who has barely even bothered to reinforce their ranks in the close season. Staying up was a commendable achievement, but now they will look for a new man to help them push on. Roberto Olabe, Miroslav Djukic and Miguel Angel Lotina- técnicos at relegated Almería, Hércules, and Depor respectively- were the others to be turfed out.

Team of the Season (4-3-3)

Goalkeeper: Carlos Kameni (Espanyol)

Consistently excellent over several seasons, the Cameroon international was in fine form again and let’s face it, based on the amount of work he had to endure during his side’s wretched 2011 run, must shade it from the impeccable Victor Valdes.

Full Back: Dani Alves (Barcelona), Marcelo (Real Madrid)

Daniel Alves’ inclusion in this team is the ultimate no-brainer. He may rile opposition fans with his niggle and occasional bouts of theatricality, but nobody can doubt the man’s energy, drive and commitment. In a season where he contributed bags of assists, the fact that he goes into this weekend’s Champions League final as the player with the fourth most touches in the opposition’s half in that competition tells you that even for a Brazilian, he is much more than just a full back. On the opposite flank his compatriot Marcelo, once derided, must surely be the league’s most improved player over the last 18 months. Dropped back from the attacking berth he generally occupied under Manuel Pellegrini, he has added defensive awareness to his game. But he still retains his attacking instincts, and his profitable partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo was devastating throughout the season.

Central Defence: Ricardo Carvalho (Real Madrid), Eric Abidal (Barcelona)

Until suffering from a liver tumour in March, the Frenchman enjoyed comfortably his best season in a Barcelona shirt. Previously preferred at full back, his move to the heart of the defence compensated for Carles Puyol’s injury absence and Gerard Piqué flaky mid-season form. Far from a sympathy vote, this is a fair reflection of a wonderful campaign for the former Lyon man who may yet play against Manchester United on Saturday having recently been eased back into first team duties. Alongside him, it’s hard to look beyond Ricardo Carvalho. I must confess to having a soft spot for the Portuguese. A colleague once described his wiliness, saying that “100% of the time he’s breaking the rules in one way or another; 99% of the time he gets away with it”. It’s true that Mourinho’s trusty compatriot is as clever as they come, but his goal threat, know-how and all round uber-cool composure show that he’s lost little from the time where he made John Terry look like the best defender in the world to British eyes. How Chelsea could have done with him during their winter woes.

Midfield: Xavi (Barcelona), Borja Valero (Villarreal), Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla)

Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil and Andrés Iniesta were a hair’s breadth short of making the first selection, but one must recongise the excellence of the three who made the cut. On Xavi, no elaboration is necessary. Borja Valero was the man who made Villarreal tick, combining good defensive positioning and displaying a clever and competent range of passing to bring out the best in the likes of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi up front. Ivan Rakitic, singularly uninterested at Schalke, arrived at Sevilla for a modest sum in January, and turned the stuttering Andalusian club’s season around with a string of superb performances. Graceful, direct, cunning with his passes and with an eye for goal to boot, he was a joy to watch for a team who been all too laboured in all they did before he rolled into town.

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

Just imagine for a moment. You’re a defender, and in front of you see the see the world’s two best attackers, nominally wide but cutting in from the ‘wrong’ flank onto their favoured shooting feet. You can hack, pull and kick all you want. Messi, with that incredible low centre of gravity and admirable refusal to hit the turf will dance around you. Nine times out of ten, you’ll already know what he’s about to do; shift the ball inside to strike it home. You know, and yet you find yourself powerless to effect any change on the outcome. On the other side, any such physical defiance will carry no truck with the Portuguese. Probably, you’re not big or strong enough to match the ex-Manchester United man’s physicality. Try and you’ll most likely bounce off him. Get lucky, and he’s liable to sky the resulting fee-kick into the top corner, or slot home the penalty kick. Sir Alex Ferguson once described the effect a young Ryan Giggs had on opposing defenders as being akin to ‘twisted blood’. Double that. And then double it again for good measure.

In the middle of the pair, this year saw Giuseppe Rossi finally announce his arrival as a truly world class talent. He settled at Villarreal from day dot, and has improved steadily each coming season. Whether leading the line, dropping deep, or working the channels, his intelligence and movement make him a constant distraction to opposing backlines. With the clinical finishing he’s added to his game, the New Jersey-born Italy striker is sure to be a menace to the league’s defences for many more years to come.

Angel Di Maria has also blossomed into a world class talent this term, and Kun Aguero’s continued brilliance is guaranteed to earn him a move to whichever of the continents elite clubs he chooses this summer. Juan Mata’s emergence showed Valencia supporters that there is life after the two Davids last summer, and as for the one who remained in Spain, trekking up the coast to Barcelona, he might have endured his worse goal return in 7 years, but his willingness to embrace the team ethic has shown that there is more to his game than just goals. He still managed 18 of those, incidentally. Lastly, mention must surely go to Fernando Llorente whose emergence will leave Fernando Torres sweating over the chances of holding down his starting berth ahead of the Euros next year. And let’s not forget Roberto Soldado either.

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