In the final analysis

May 20, 2008
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

After a fairly tame campaign in general, the last day proved to be fairly dramatic, not least because of the possibility, up to the eleventh hour, that relegated Levante would not turn up for their fixture at Real Madrid - a symbolic pairing if ever there was one.

Real Madrid
GettyImages / JasperJulienReal Madrid got their title party

The champions, stuffed full of euphoria and keen to enjoy the end-of-season party, were told on Thursday that Levante, the cannon-fodder for the final day, were definitely going on strike this time, having twice called off industrial action in previous weeks. This is due, as you'll now know, to the fact that the squad is owed some 16 million euros, with some of the players not having been paid for almost two years. Whilst Real Madrid count the lolly and talk of tempting Cristiano Ronaldo from England for bucketfuls of cash and 200 grand a week, Levante's Armando Lozano admitted to the press that he has been baled out for the last year due to his girlfriend's money, his parents and his mates.

Mustapha Riga, one of the better players this year, became so frustrated last weekend by the home fans' reaction to his possible departure in the summer that he gave the old up-and-at-'em gesture, which resulted in the threat of a fine from the club authorities this past week. Riga, with an ironic smirk, commented 'Oh well - I suppose that according to the rules it's a fair cop, but I reckon it's a bit rich fining me when they haven't actually paid me for two years.' Good one.

Levante will play in Segunda 'A' next season, but the contrast between the have and the have-nots has been illustrated in absurd fashion by this saga. Real Madrid's president initially offered to pay the Levante players to turn up by promising them a share of the gate, but was eventually advised against that by his lawyers. He then got his delegates onto the phone to try to persuade Tottenham to fly over on a cheapie and play a friendly - anything not to spoil a party to which 80,000 people were scheduled to attend. Schuster then put the boot in, saying on Friday that the strike was unfair on Real Madrid, because although he sympathised with Levante's plight (he was once their manager) he thought that they could have made their point in the previous games, as opposed to ruining Madrid's celebrations - and you have to admit that he had a point. In the end, with interventions from the players' union and Raúl himself, Levante agreed to turn up and be thrashed 5-2 by the team staring down at them from the very top.

Real Madrid thus finished the season on a record number of points (85) since the league changed the system to three points and returned the top flight to 20 teams. Villarreal, a splendid second on 77, finished with a point more than Real Madrid managed last season when they also won the league. Villarreal were applauded off the pitch at Deportivo, another side who have enjoyed an excellent second half to the campaign, after looking doomed around Christmas time. Barcelona ended the season with a 3-5 win at relegated Murcia, a game where some of their virtues were in evidence, but where most of their frailties were more obvious. They'll need a new 'keeper for next season at the very least, since Pinto is no better than Valdes, in truth. Frank Rijkaard at least went out on a victorious note, but Pep Guardiola is going to have a busy summer.

Racing de Santander, after their unexpectedly successful season finally confirmed their UEFA place in the 86th minute of their final game - which was just as well since Mallorca were beating Zaragoza at that moment and were thus threatening their place. In the end, Mallorca had to settle for 7th, but like Racing have been something of a revelation this term, with Güiza ending as the league's top scorer with 26, pipping Sevilla's Fabiano who managed 24. At least Güiza gets to travel to Austria this summer, along with the full-back Fernando Navarro.

Mallorca's win condemned Zaragoza to the drop, an extraordinary turn of events after last season's excellent 6th place finish. On the same day, Numancia, from the wilds of Soria, celebrated a return to the top flight berth that they last occupied in 2005, and next season will be their fourth attempt at the highest level, in their 63-year existence. The other two places will be from three sides currently fighting it out - all of them ex-First Division members; Sporting de Gijon, Málaga and Real Sociedad, the latter attempting to bounce straight back after last year's relegation. Málaga didn't do themselves any favours by losing their third home game on the trot by the extraordinary score of 4-6 to Hercules, from Alicante.

Espanyol lost at home again, finishing the season on a miserable note, after such a splendid first half. Their manager Ernesto Valverde may be heading for an unemployed summer. Another manager on the move, rather more voluntarily, will be Getafe's Michael Laudrup, who waved bye bye to the fans during a 1-1 draw at home to Betis, closing a strange season that saw the club perform heroically in Europe and reach the Kings' Cup Final, but still be threatened with relegation until last week. Laudrup is yet to reveal his next destination, but the rumours put him in charge of Sevilla next season - a side whose troubled season finally ended on a reasonable high, with a 4-1 tonking of Athletic Bilbao and a UEFA spot. With Alvés allegedly on his way to the Camp Nou, Kanouté probably returning to England and Fabiano most likely on his way to the Bernabéu, the manager who takes over will not be short of funds, at the very least.

If he has any sense he won't be going to Valencia, who seem to have their hearts set now on Unai Emery, Almeria's new star manager. Racing's Marcelino seemed to be destined for the hottest of seats, but now looks like he might stay at Santander. Valencia plastered over some of the cracks by finishing on 51 points in the end, nine clear of the relegation zone. But in midweek they upset the fans yet again by refusing to pose on the Town Hall balcony with the King's Cup, despite having been implored by the Mayoress to do so. Baraja and Marchena, the two captains, put a seal on a nasty old season by refusing - a gesture, one assumes, designed to send a message out to Valencia's notoriously hard-to-please fans. But it wasn't exactly sensible, and further illustrates the depths to which the club has sunk. They'll be hoping that the summer's nice and long. At the very least the fans applauded Santi Cañizares off the pitch, in what may well be the complex goalkeeper's last game before retirement.

As is traditional now in this column, let's sign off this summer with team of the season and other sundry awards. Here are the eleven chaps lucky enough to be mentioned in this year's final column.

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid)
A predictable choice perhaps, but undoubtedly the correct one. For starters, he won the 'Zamora' trophy by conceding only 32 goals in 36 games (0.89 per game) and was also the keeper who made the most goal-bound stops (139) - which either means the champions were not as defensively efficient as they might have appeared without Casillas, or they were just attack-minded. Take your pick, but Casillas is now a confirmed member of the world's elite, and probably has the best reflexes of the lot. When the rest of them flapped, Casillas remained calm. He's also lining himself up as the club's next spokesman, as soon as Raúl retires from the scene. He's also square-jawed and sensible, in a preppy sort of way, with Nike and Adidas scrambling for his signature. Things will only get better for Iker.

Sergio Ramos
GettyImages / JasperJulienSergio Ramos celebrates his goal against Levante on the final day of the season

Right full-back: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
The only other member of the champions picked by Aragonés for the Euro 2008 tournament, Ramos is gradually taking over from the old guard and confirming his place in the Bernabéu pantheon. Chelsea have unofficially offered a lot of money for him, which at least shows their good taste if not their manners. Now that RM can choose between Pepe, Cannavaro, Heinze and Metzelder, there has been less call for playing Ramos at centre-back, although he does it just fine. His power and his commitment, plus his ability from set pieces are turning him into the new leader, despite his occasional tendency to want to cover too much ground, leaving the back exposed. Should turn into one of the greats if he doesn't get too distracted by the interests of Dolce & Gabbana and sundry young ladies, but I don't want to sound jealous.

Left full-back: Joan Capdevila (Villarreal)
After seven seasons with Deportivo, Capdevila moved to Villarreal in the summer and has proved one of the buys of the season. Seeking a change, or stability, Capdevila could have gone to one of the big two, but made his move after they had secured their squads for the season. But he's not complaining. No chicken at 30, Capdevila travels to Austria as the first-choice left-back, a problem position for Spain in the past few seasons, but only because he had not been fully trusted before. He's defensively sound, but not particularly adventurous - a profile that has suited Villarreal down to the ground this season with the equally excellent Cazorla and Pires able to do the offensive stuff down that side.

Right midfield: Ariel Ibagaza (Mallorca)
Having been replaced by Agüero at Atlético, Ibagaza returned to Mallorca with his tail between his legs, destined, it seemed, to be yet another Argentine nearly man. But this season, whilst Dani Güiza has been taking the credit for the team's fine showing, someone has been supplying the goods. Ibagaza has finished way ahead of all the other top assist men, ending on a wholesome 100 (for goal attempts), way ahead of the next provider, Dani Alves on 76.

Central midfield (attacking): Guti (Real Madrid)
Guti isn't everyone's cup of tea, but when he actually concentrates on doing what he's paid for, there are few in the game with his passing ability, few in the game with his uncanny ability to change the direction of the play with that strangely angular movement of his - pivoting on his hips and sending the ball in the opposite direction to where he has been looking a millisecond before. Aragonés may have his reasons for not taking Raúl to Austria, but if, as he claims, he takes the players who are on form, then Guti should have been selected. He's been one of RM's best this season, back to where he was some years ago before he got lost in a fog of his own making. When defences have proven stubborn, it's been Guti who has invariably picked the lock. Spain could use that in summer, but they're going to have to look to someone else.

Central midfield (defensive): Marcos Senna (Villarreal)
Not a wealth of candidates here, but Senna gets the vote for his quiet consistency, and for his obvious contribution to the cause this season. In Albelda's absence, a lot will depend on him in the summer, if Aragonés decides to make him the first-choice hod-carrier. He's more than that though. He's neat and tidy, does all the right things and can be physical if the occasion demands. Scored the goal of the season against Betis, from behind the half-way line.

Left midfield: Leo Messi (Barcelona)
He was picked for this spot last season, and although it's not strictly his position it's difficult to say exactly what Messi is - a phrase often used to describe the greats. Well - we know he's the best player in the world, with apologies to Ronaldo lovers, but he's not here for that reason. What has been most impressive about Messi this season has been his sheer will to win, his never-say-die attitude and the silent example he has provided to all around him, many of whom have seemed less than committed to the cause. At times he has run down cul-de-sacs, it's true, but only because there has been a lack of intelligent support. He's hardly had a bad game, and even when he came back from a serious injury, he was immediately running at players again like some sort of demented Spartan child, unacquainted with fear. Sorry to mix the metaphors, but he's also worked like a Trojan. Nice little bloke too, modest and without pretensions. You get the impression that he appreciates the privilege of being a professional footballer, particularly after what he went though as a child. He deserved better this season.

Centre-back: Ezequiel Garay (Racing de Santander)
He's the man they're all talking about, and the young Argentine looks destined for the Bernabéu next season, despite the injury he picked up in March. It was significant that Racing's excellent season began to stutter once he was sidelined, and for many observers he has been the revelation of the season. Good on the ball, good at anticipating and solid in the air, the only pity is that he may be joining Madrid's already extensive collection of centre-backs, a fact that might hold his progress back. More likely to be bought and loaned back, he's one for the future - but not a distant one.

In the hole: Raúl (Real Madrid)
I'm sorry, but there's no escaping the fact. Everyone wrote him off (including this column) and he's come back and won two more league titles, signing off this season as the team's top scorer, just in case we were in any doubt. He's not going to Austria because of the type of person he is. It has little to do with his footballing ability. Raúl has simply concentrated on doing things right this season, hanging behind the forwards and converting himself into a simple but effective link player, shuffling the play along in an unspectacular fashion, but still getting on the end of many a move, simply by virtue of his instincts, of his ability to know what will happen a split-second before the rest. Raúl never passes a ball without some intention, never makes a move without considering its momentary impact on the whole spatial set-up. He is a truly great player in the sense that there have been few like him - with no pace, no great strength and no obvious ball-tricks and magic. He just reads the game perfectly, and continues to be a thorn in everyone's side.

Striker 1: Dani Güiza
The league's top scorer, all manner of jokes have been cracked about Güiza's sudden conversion from also-ran to major striker, as soon as he met and settled down with Nuria Bermudez, the woman who once snogged Cristiano Ronaldo and who famously threatened to do the same to David Beckham. Güiza doesn't look like a top striker, with his Dickensian sideburns and his rather ungainly lope, and he may turn out to be another one-season wonder, like Salva Ballesta or Mista, 'Pichichi' today, gone tomorrow. If that turns out to be the case, then he should milk it for all it's worth, and go to Barça next season, where he will probably struggle - but there's no harm in giving it a go.

Striker 2: Kun Agüero (Atlético Madrid)
The low-gravity Argentine seems to have finally come of age, and may not be another of the low-arsed nearly men (cue Saviola, Ibagaza, Aimar). He's scored some great goals, and has usually managed to avoid the inconsistency endemic to his team-mates, helping them to secure a Champions League spot at last. One assumes he can only get better. Just what is it in the air in Argentina?

Subs' bench: Llorente (Valladolid), Forlan (Atlético Madrid), Luis Fabiano (Sevilla), Colsa (Racing Santander), Nihat (Villarreal)

Manager of the season: Unai Emery (Almería)
Most shots at goal: Güiza (Mallorca)
Most assists: Ibagaza (Mallorca) - second year running.
Most fouls committed: Moisés (Espanyol)
Most yellow cards: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
Most fouled: Luis Garcia (Espanyol)
Most balls lost: (not over the stand) Dani Alves (Sevilla)
Surprise booby package of the season: Zaragoza
Best surprise package of the year: Almería/Racing de Santander
Biggest disappointment of the year: Getafe losing to Bayern Munich in the UEFA.


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