Monday, May 17, 2010
At the end of the day...
In the final analysis it all ended fairly predictably. Once again I dropped down to the local bar on Sunday evening to watch the two big games being fought out, but after a few early flurries by Valladolid in the Camp Nou, the result (4-0) was never in doubt. Further south, Real Madrid huffed and puffed but never quite blew Malaga's house down, a result (1-1) that ultimately affected the relegation zone more than the upper one.
• La Liga Team of the Season
• Forum: Soccernet v Castrol Rankings
Barcelona thus ended the season on a tantalising 99 points, like a slightly frustrating cricket score, scoring 98 goals. The tally is of course, a record, beating the previous one by a massive eleven points. Records do need some explanation, and last season's 87 by Barcelona was the most ever accumulated for a season of 38 games. The previous numerical record was in the season 1996-1997 when Capello's Madrid managed 92 points (and Robson's Barcelona reached 90), but back in those days of yore there were 42 games in a season.
To some extent, all this statistical stuff is compensation for a campaign in which the Catalan conquerors were never likely to repeat the stratospheric title-fest of last season, but the game against Valladolid was proof of their overwhelming effectiveness, their ability to always threaten the opposition, even without Xavi and Iniesta.
Pellegrini's little cat-call last week, in which he claimed that he would have liked to have seen how Barcelona would have got on without Messi for two months - alluding to the period when Madrid were without Ronaldo - is besides the point. Part of Messi's greatness is the fact that for the last two seasons he has acquired more strength, and perhaps more intelligence in the manner that he now runs at defences. Instead of the vertical high-speed dashes in which he specialised for his first few seasons, he now seems to torture defenders by using the zig-zag horizontal, equally effective and less prone to ending in a high-speed collision.
Is it my imagination, or does he seem to be fouled less these days? Defenders still go for him, but there is so much focus on him now, such neurotic attempts to cut his lines of supply (only Inter really managed it) that he tends to emerge relatively unscathed from battle. As such, he has always been there, leading from the front. 47 goals in all competitions is an astonishing total for such a tiny man.
He weighed in with another couple against Valladolid, just in case. Pedro, who has had an excellent season, scored again and would seem to have condemned Thierry Henry to look for pastures new next season. The scarcity of the Frenchman's appearances since the turn of the year and the fact that he has never quite fitted in - either in the city or in the team's style of play - suggests that he will be on his way.
More significant will be the destiny of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the summer, a player who has made a certain contribution but an insufficient one, given his pedigree and his obvious talent. Juventus are interested, and other leading European sides would be tempted, as long as his price is cut to reflect his relatively disappointing showing this season.
Any major deals involving Barcelona, however, will be conditioned by the World Cup, in which most of the squad are involved, and the presidential elections scheduled for June 13, the day after the World Cup kicks off. There is still talk of Cesc Fabregas, despite some Madridistas' insistence that he can be tempted to the Bernabeu. Fabregas has spent a long time now in London, but his sentimental roots are in Catalunya and despite his occasional tendency to double-speak, he is only keeping his options open for his agent. It would be fantastic to see him in La Liga, but I cannot see him dressed in white. The only way that he would end up in Madrid would be because of lingering doubts as to how he would fit into the tactical scheme at Barcelona, given the present incumbents of the midfield.
On the other hand, he is exactly the player that Real Madrid need, given the disappointing performances of Kaka. A more perceptive player in that upper-midfield position, one who can slow the play down or speed it up given the occasion, is exactly what Madrid have lacked. Xabi Alonso has probably been their most consistent player this campaign, but he needs more support, more options directly in front of him. Guti is packing his bags. We may never see his like again - and he actually managed to get himself booked before he even came on for his final game - but as Joni Mitchell once wrote, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
Madrid may say the same about Pellegrini, if he does indeed go. In my opinion it would be a mistake, but the suits at the top may feel that the only galactico that they failed to sign last summer was a manager to cope with the special demands of the Bernabeu post. They may be right, but it's hardly a recipe for stability. Mourinho is winking in a westerly direction, if his recent comments are anything to go by, and Jorge Valdano seems no longer enthused by his Chilean choice.
Valencia can be pretty pleased with themselves, although they would have preferred the gap between themselves and Real Madrid (25 points) to have been rather smaller. They are only mentioned now in the press in relation to their likely squad for next season, since the long-announced departures of David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata seem as inevitable now as the cock crowing the dawn. Villa's destiny is surely tied up with that of Ibrahimovic, and although Silva is fancied at Old Trafford, he seems the natural successor to Guti. Sergio Canales from Santander is not yet the finished product, and will not be expected to lead the revolution, but he is bound to prosper in the more thoroughbred company that awaits him next season.
Moving down to Sevilla, one of the most exciting games of this final weekend was the game at Almeria, which featured on the Saturday night live match on La Sexta channel. Almeria were expected to show little interest in spoiling their Andalucian cousins' evening, thus enabling them to hold on to the vital fourth place and Champions League qualification.
Mallorca were expected to beat Espanyol at home, and as they walked off the pitch in San Moix after their 2-0 win they glanced up to the scoreboard to see that Almeria had equalised (2-2) in the Juegos Mediterraneos stadium. The result would have seen Mallorca qualify for the Champions League and with it, probably save themselves from financial ruin. Over in Almeria, Sevilla's president Jose Maria Del Nido was losing more of what little hair he possesses as his own dream of financial salvation was seemingly scattered to the four winds. And then, with 45 seconds remaining of the four minutes of added time, the young Rodri who had come on for his debut after 80 minutes, connected to a bouncing ball sent over by the perennially hyper-active Jesus Navas and sent it into the roof of the net for one of the most sensational and significant endings to a season that these two clubs may ever experience.
Poor Mallorca. You had to feel for them, as Sevilla danced jigs on the pitch, over on the mainland. And even now, Mallorca may not be allowed to play in the Europa Cup, given their dire economic straits. If they are not, Villarreal, who were held to a 3-3 draw at Zaragoza (they came back from 3-0 down) will take their place.
The other spot went to Getafe, who predictably beat Atletico Madrid (3-0) in the Calderon. While Getafe deserve praise for their achievements this season, Atletico have rather relaxed on the league front for the past few weeks, thus affecting other teams' destinies. Congratulations to them for their deserved victory of Fulham last week, but their minds were on next week's Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, making the Getafe fixture an awkward little interlude for them, between potential double cup glory.
The same could be said for Sporting Gijon, who were never likely to put up much resistance against their mates from Racing Santander. Manuel Preciado, Sporting's manager, is a paid-up member of Racing, and is a self-confessed fan. Just in case anyone might have been confused, Sporting's president, Manuel Vega-Arango Alvare, announced last week that he was hoping that their friends and brothers from Santander would stay up, and that they would be happy to lend a hand. Reasons to be cheerful, or reasons to be fined? The latter, I think. It makes a farce of the competition. Ask Valladolid and Tenerife, who were both potentially affected by the result.
Anyway, the keyboard gets a brief rest before the World Cup starts. Before I zip off to buy my new plasma TV, here are this season's trophies and booby prizes.
Team of the Season: Barcelona. Not for winning the title but for sticking to their guns, and refusing to be deflected from their philosophy.
Manager of the Season: Gregorio Manzano. He didn't swear once, and with a cheaply-assembled squad of non-household names, almost managed to take Mallorca into the Champions League.
Most dapper manager of the season: Pep Guardiola. I love those little waistcoats he's been wearing. Anyone know where he gets them from?
Surprise team of the season: Getafe finished 17th last season, and weren't expected to finish in the top six (they did). Athletic Bilbao (8th) earn an honourable mention, after being chosen by various journalists last September (this one included) as candidates for the drop.
Player of the season: Leo Messi, of course. You want me to say something interesting? Ok - Cristiano Ronaldo gets second place.
Best young player: Iker Muniain (Athletic). The new Messi? Santander's Sergio Canales gets second place.
Dirtiest player: Statistically speaking, Paulo Assuncao of Atletico Madrid.
Most disappointing team of the season: Sevilla qualified for the Champions League in the end, but finished 36 points adrift of Barcelona. Although this says much for the Catalans, it doesn't say a lot for La Liga's second-tier protagonists. The 'serious' challenge from a third party never materialised. Valencia (3rd) are less to blame, given their circumstances. In England, by contrast, Tottenham (4th) finished only 16 points adrift of the winners Chelsea. Sevilla can redeem themselves by winning the cup this week, but by that time this column will have been taken down. Too late was the cry!
Weirdest team of the season: Atletico Madrid. As schizo as ever, they were poor to middling in the league, sacked their manager but may nevertheless end up with a double.
Most predictable outcome: Poor old Xerez. Despite a valiant rearguard action, they never managed to move out of bottom place, as everyone predicted.
Quote of the season: Guti: "When I retire, I'm going to live in Thailand. I like the food."
Flop of the season: Shunsuke Nakamura (Espanyol). He lasted until Christmas, then went on his way. Maybe he missed the weather in Glasgow. Kaka didn't fare much better, but as least he's still around.
They will be missed: Raul looks finally to be on his way, but don't count on it. Joseba Exteberria has retired, after fifteen years distinguished service at Athletic. Guti goes to Galatasaray (sounds like a children's book title), and Roberto Pires (Villarreal) is finally hanging his boots up. Joan Laporta leaves too, and hopes to be president of the Catalan nation.