El Balonazo’s Week 38 Preview – bar the shouting…

Sixty eight thousand and four hundred.

No, that’s not Ronaldo’s daily wedge. Nor is it the the number of kilometres Las Palmas travel in an average season – it’s more. And if I said that it was the number of Real Madrid fans calling the ‘Save Jose’ hotline, I’d be very wrong indeed – although it could be the number of Madrid season ticket holders volunteering to drive him to the airport.

68400 are the precise minutes La Liga (and us, the common man, the woman in the grada) will have endured come end of play on Saturday night (give or take two thousand eight hundred or so for injury time, feigned injury and sideline testiculation etc). And here at El Balonazo we’ve lived, breathed, kicked, scratched, bled, wept, monitored and detailed each and every one of them, all for your interweb edification*.

I must say, it’s been… different. Having to come up with a thousand odd words twice weekly to keep both of you amused when you should be busy with excel macro hasn’t always been simple – just more fun. So thanks for persisting.

It would be nice to say it’s been a no-holds-barred, thrill-a-minute, cliffhanger of a season, but it hasn’t. Barcelona led for the entirety of the campaign, with Real Madrid not really putting together any run of consistency until it was far too late. The sole early challenge came from an Atleti team equipped with master poacher Falcao, who spent months banging in last minute goals to gloss over the shortcomings of Diego Simeone’s team. They’ll be without El Tigre next season, although one would assume that the fifty million that will be winging its way from Monaco may go some way to re-building.

Below the lofty heights of the tetchy triumvirate, however, things were – and are – a touch more interesting. If you watch football in Spain, and follow a team that doesn’t compete in the global media event known as El Clasico, you’ll be aware of the need to moderate your expectations. Moderation, however, can be a reward in itself.

If you’re a fan of Real Sociedad you’ll be particularly pleased with what has been their best campaign in years – although probably not so chuffed at the imminent departure of their coach and the success’ architect, Philippe Montanier, who will be leaving at come seasons end. So too Rayo Vallecano, who whilst demonstrating how not to run a football club off of the pitch have had a fantastic season on it. Valladolid too must have surpassed their own expectations with an excellent campaign based on Miroslav Dukic using the wily way’s we’ve long associated with Serbian coaches, whilst Malaga, Betis, Getafe and Levante get high marks for their respective travails – although the cloud of financial peril of the first, inconsistency of the middle two and – whisper it – a suggestion of match fixing of the latter dulls the sheen slightly.

The negative column features notable Big Boys; Sevilla, what the chuff happened to them? Valencia – yes, I know that they can still qualify for the Champions League. But on the final day? With the money they’ve spent? Tut, tut. But the biggest flop are Bilbao who went from rampaging lions in Old Trafford to timid lambs in the space of a few months after the sale of Javi Martinez, the non sale and subsequent sidelining of Llorente and a really strange pre-season tussle between manager and board over something to do with the training facilities, car parking space, leaky pipes or something equally as banal.

Perhaps the strangest season of the lot was Espanyol’s. Things were looking bleak for the Catalans in December until they got baseball fanatic Javier Aguirre in to shore things up. It started going right with a gutsy scrap away to Real Madrid from which they took a point and didn’t look back – had their winter and early spring form featured throughout, the top of the league may look different today. Then again, that means that they would have kept Pochettino, and then Southampton wouldn’t have felt the need to get rid of the man destined to take Reading to Champions League glory. Small world, isn’t it?

Where was I. Ah, yes…

So what’s going on this weekend? Well, we’re back to the default TV friendly kick-off times for Barca and Madrid with home fixtures against Osasuna and Malaga beckoning. Osasuna are safe for another season, whilst Malaga are probably wondering where they’ll get a manager to replace Manuel Pellegrini who’s traded Picasso for Lowry. Or what will become of not so sacred wunderkindNew window Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, or Isco as this seasons Michu is known, who’s undecided about either going Juan GrisNew window or, um Lowry. And, finally, what the devil the courts will make of their appeal against UEFA’s punitive season long ban from all Euro action.

At the basement, three of the quartet comprising Mallorca, Zaragoza, Celta Vigo and Depor will go down on Saturday night. Depor just need to match the results of the three below them to get a firm grasp on Primera status – although they probably wouldn’t have much fancied a final home game against a La Realwho must win. For their part Celta will stay up if they beat Espanyol whilst Depor slip, and Zaragoza will breathe again if both Galician teams slip and they beat the tiger free Atleti – it remains to be seen if they’re Grrrrrrrrrrrreat without him. Mallorca need a miracle.

On a cautionary note, anybody wishing to celebrate a last minute reprieve with a David Pleat shuffle (above) should bear in mind that a sprightly ten year old me once did the same at Reading. By the time I’d go to the first player and managed to pat the back of his sweat drenched shirt, news came in that Exeter City had equalised. We were down, and a policeman was shouting at me to get back onto the flipping terrace. Just warning you…

Back to the action and Rayo – scraping for the Euro spot left vacant by Malaga – will reach dreamland if they manage a win over Bilbao. Although that won’t be enough if the LFP uphold their decision to punish the boys from Vallecas for their own financial wrong doing. Whilst Levante say hello to Betis who are already Euro bound for the first time since the Crusades.

Next up is Granada’s mid-table contest against Getafe followed by Sevilla and Valencia. Although not involving either of the glamour pusses, these games should be goodies. Whilst Granada have only pride to play for Getafe could, just could sneak into the Europa League if they win, Valencia get the win that take them into the Champions League and Rayo’s appeal falls on death ears. That said a Sevilla victory would see them push for the last place in the also rans league thus opening the door for Real Sociedad. Got all that?

So that’s it. An octavian eight teams have something to play for come Saturday night. There’ll be tears; of pain and joy, bitterness, frustration, impotence and rage – and that’s just El Balonazo Towers.

Until Monday for the grand finale of El Balonazo’ must read column. Enjoy the weekend – even if something crap happens at about eleven on Saturday night. And remember, Bill Shankly was wrong, life is more important.

* No, we haven’t. Paul still seems to take far too much satisfaction from watching repeats of a Longonot Horticulture vs Mumcop match in the Kenyan Second flight on a crackly web feed, whilst David drifts off if Homeland pops up on the TV…

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