Thursday, June 14, 2007

La Liga 2007....The Tightest Possible Finish

I’ve been meaning to write for several weeks on a surprisingly exciting end to this season in the Spanish Liga. With only one game to go it’s got to be done, although it does help me that the Spanish season seems to go on for longer than anyone else’s. Last weekend saw one of those classic dramatic days when 2 almost simultaneous 89th minute goals changed the fortunes of the main contenders for the title in around 18 seconds. An equaliser for Real Madrid at Zaragoza was quickly followed by a goal for Espanyol at Barcelona. I was still in Italy and the drama was enough even to stop the participants in the programme I was watching from bickering even more about who Inter Milan should buy for next season.

It seems impossible to believe that Real Madrid is the team most likely to win the league. This Real Madrid, the team that 3 or 4 months ago was sending everyone to sleep with their disjointed and half-hearted performances. Almost completely reliant on Van Nistelrooy for their goals, and on Beckham as the supplier of the ball to him; it is a team that has managed to hide or temporarily forget its multiple defects rather than solve them. A knack of scoring late goals has given them the points on several days when they deserved to come away with nothing. Nobody gave any serious consideration to Capello remaining as Real's trainer beyond the end of this season, but if they win the league this weekend then that could be a serious prospect. Ironically, those turgid goalless draws or narrow 1:0 victories that they scraped during the winter have in the end provided the base for what should be a successful assault on the title, with only Mallorca to overcome in the last game. Beckham, who we were told would never play again for the club after his decision to leave, is set for a hero's farewell as he has been one of the key players in the revival of the team's fortunes. Whether they win the league or not, this is a Madrid team that is still in need of some serious reconstruction, ironically a victory this weekend might make that harder.

What's his favourite number?

It would be fascinating to know what "incentives" are being offered to the Mallorca players to get them put up more than token resistance to Madrid in the final game. Meanwhile, the new dream team at Barcelona has not lasted anything like as long as expected. With key players either seriously out of form or injured they appear to have progressively lost almost all of the cohesion and flair that had them dominating Spanish football over the last couple of years. There is talk of internal problems at the club and it looks as if a major clear out could be on the way during the summer. Leo Messi has done his best to emulate Maradona first by scoring a wonder goal and then following it up with one helped into the goal by his hand. Let’s hope for his sake that he doesn't take imitation too far by starting to consume small mountains of white powder.

Sevilla have had a good campaign, and recorded a noteworthy achievement in winning the UEFA Cup for the second year running. Had they managed to win their game at Mallorca last weekend they would have a very much better chance than the slim possibility they have now of claiming the league. However, they had several opportunities this season to open a gap at the top of the league, and they blew it every time. Never mind, they can still claim the Spanish Cup too if they overcome Getafe in the final. Valencia were another team with possibilities and had good runs but also suffered from the same inconsistency as Sevilla as well as a serious mid-season injury crisis. Despite that they have finished in 4th spot. Over on the other side of Madrid, Atletico have lived up to the expectations of their fatalistic fans, starting the season with some hope they have managed to arrange things so that they are just below the position for European qualification. Their supporters expect nothing more, although I had high hopes for them this season.

The surprise packages of the season have been Villareal and Zaragoza. The former have put together a very impressive late run that sees them back in the running for a UEFA Cup spot, a few months ago they were more concerned about the possibility of relegation than anything else as they lost Riquelme, the player who had been so influential for them in recent seasons. The resurgence of Zaragoza has seen them in with a chance of Champions League football at some points in the season, it’s not to be but they could be a force next season if they strengthen their squad a bit. Incidentally, all followers of British football should look at the players who have been knocking in the goals this season; Kanoute, Forlan , Van Nistelrooy. The latter we might have expected to score a few, but the first two hardly shone as goal scorers in their time in the UK.

Down at the bottom of the table there will also be some last day excitement. These are grim times for football in the Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao are in danger and their rivals from San Sebastian (Real Sociedad) look doomed. They need to win and have the 3 teams above them lose. My Spanish team, Celta Vigo, have done their very best to turn what began as a promising season into a total disaster. Despite having won an important game at Atletico last week their fate is still not in their hands alone, and the fact that they have their last game at home isn't as comforting as it should be - victories for Celta at Balaidos this season have been about as common as snowstorms in Sevilla. Incidentally, Sevilla’s city rivals Betis could still go down if Celta win, they haven’t helped their case much by sacking the coach with one game to go.

I won't even mention who my English team are, it will make me look like a complete loser - suffice to say it's not Watford! What a season, I don't even know why I like the game. I’ve managed to arrange my weekend trip back to the UK in such a way that ensures I won’t see any of the action, probably just as well given the way the season has turned out for me. Unfortunately I may still be back in time for the celebrations of the Madrid fans if things go well for them, they might yet have something to put in that vast trophy room after all.

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