The final weekend in LaLiga only brought one surprise: Espanyol managed to finish 7th as they surpassed two Basque teams, thus making the preliminary round of the Europa League. The Catalans defeated an apathetic Real Sociedad at home, and those three points allowed them to overtake Athletic, who played another awful away match at Sevilla.
After 31 years, the Espanyolistas will play in Europe again, a feat that prompted a joyful pitch invasion as players and fans celebrated together, in a very pleasant scene to watch. All the rest remained as it was: Valencia maintained the 4th spot with an away win at Valladolid, who made the visitors’ life easier with two horrid mistakes at the back; and Girona couldn’t even make things difficult for Celta and lost to Alaves, thus becoming the third relegated side.
Let’s break all 20 teams in three groups, in terms of their level of delivery on the expectations they generated at the beginning of the season.
Atlético de Madrid (2nd): yes, you haters, they have overachieved, as they were the only potential threat to Barcelona for a long spell of the season and finished on top of Real Madrid, always something to brag about. In fact, their season has been almost immaculate against inferior opposition, something that traditionally haunted them in previous seasons. They only managed to get a total of 2 points in their four matches against Real Madrid and Barcelona; that’s where your top players – Griezmann, Costa, Koke – need to show up. Next season becomes a huge question mark for Simeone, as half of his preferred line-up seems bound to leave. Another reinvention required at the Wanda…
Getafe (5th): of course! With three scorers over 10 goals apiece, Bordalas’ side added a bit of flair to their traditional bite and not only got a few memorable wins, but also ended up putting together a season as solid as they come. Mata, Molina and Angel are no kids, but drove plenty of defenders crazy and showed great awareness to find each other in scoring positions. A shame they lost that 4th spot, but it was a bit too much for such a short squad.
Espanyol (7th): not that finishing 7th is a huge achievement, but returning to Europe deserves some recognition. The team started the season well enough, and occupied the top six until the 12th week. Then they lost six in a row and nine of ten, but the Chinese shareholder decided to trust Rubi, and that trust paid off. Espanyol finished the season strongly, with three consecutive wins and no goals conceded. With Wu Lei and Borja Iglesias, the future looks bright. One quick comment about the latter, who as you know is not my type of player: in his last three seasons, he’s played for Celta B – 34 goals in 39 matches in the Third Division –, Zaragoza – 22 goals in 39 matches in the Segunda –, and Espanyol – 17 goals in 35 matches. This kid scores wherever he goes.
Alaves (11th): even if they finished in the lower half of the table, they occupied the top 6 for most of the season with a very limited budget, and their final relaxation was understandable. It’s hard to understand why coach Abelardo is leaving, but the group managing the club have proven quite smart with the city’s basketball club, so let’s see who comes in his place.
2. As expected
Barcelona (1st): it may sound harsh, but with Messi scoring over one goal per match every season and the solid structure he’s got behind him week after week, they were by far the favourite side, and they won it easily enough. With the exception of Vidal, the (expensive!) reinforcements have not brought much to the table, but this squad knows how to compete week after week, and that’s why they’ve won 8 of the last 11. And they will keep winning for a few more years unless something radical happens in Madrid.
Valencia (4th): this can also be harsh, but they have an outstanding side that have struggled to score, especially during the first half of the season. Rodrigo, Mina and Gameiro have combined for 21 goals, which is precious little, and the team’s top scorer has been Parejo, which shows how poor the strikers have been. That said, they got to that final Champions League spot with a strong finish, got to the semis of the Europa League and can still upset Barcelona for the Copa del Rey title. Not bad.
Sevilla (6th): their finish and their win over Betis compensate for plenty of disappointments during the season, especially in a convoluted start that resulted in Machin’s dismissal. Now they look like the consistent team they’ve been for more than a decade, and they’ve recovered Monchi to give them that edge in each transfer window.
Real Sociedad (9th): I’ve often been harsh with Real Sociedad this year, but when you take a look at their roster, this was probably as high as they could get. Plenty of youngsters, not enough goal scorers, loads of injuries to key senior players..… Europe was always going to be very tough. At least it’s been the coming of age of Oyarzabal, with 13 goals. With all this young talent – get ready for Barrenetxea – next season should be promising.
Eibar (12th): decent campaign. Always entertaining and much better at home than away from Eibar, it’s a shame that they don’t have a decent striker. They have led LaLiga in crosses, but Sergi Einrich – 7 goals – is far from a deadly scorer. Amazingly enough, he’s declined to extend his contract, so who knows, maybe Eibar can find a bargain who gets them to Europe next season.
Leganés (13th): exactly where they belong. Similarly to other teams in this section, they looked much better than their actual finish earlier in the season, but there’s only so much you can do with 14 players… En-Nesyri is better than he looks and they got the steal of the winter transfer window in Braithwaite.
Levante (15th): at some point it looked as though they could finish a bit higher, as Jose Luis Morales looked unstoppable and the team’s defence held up. That did not last long, though, and they finished struggling until last weekend, in which they showed their experience by defeating Girona at their own stadium, the ultimate dagger for the Catalans. They do need to recover some of the old roughness that made them famous, because they can’t afford another season conceding 66 goals. That said, in my peculiar Most Entertaining Team index, which adds goals scored and conceded, they’re a surprising second with 125, trailing only Barcelona for just one goal. Who would have guessed…
Valladolid (16th): back after five seasons in the Segunda, their goal was staying up and stay up they did. Boring as hell, terribly limited in offense, they played hard and won the few matches they needed to win. They’ll need a new striker, or get Ronaldo Nazario back in shape. In another nice moment this weekend, they said goodbye to midfielder Borja, who’s played for them seven seasons in three different spells. Borja was replaced with five minutes to go and the ref allowed a good couple of minutes of applause, chants and celebration.
Huesca (19th): I’m tempted to say that they overachieved because they did not finish bottom of the table, but that’s a bit rich. The squad was painfully limited, and only the few winter signings made it a bit more competitive. A few players will stay in LaLiga – perhaps Phil wants to sign Avila for his Real Sociedad – but the bulk of them belong to the Segunda and will remember this season like a dream, especially their decent showings at the Camp Nou and the Bernabeu.
Rayo (20th): I can’t see Rayo’s season as a failure, and the reason is their budget and the talent of the team. A couple of players such as Raul de Tomas and Embarba kept hopes high for a long stretch of the season, but it’s hard to keep going for a full season without the right service, but especially with the worst defence of the tournament. A pity to see them go to the Segunda, let’s see if Jemez can get them back.
Real Madrid (3rd): finishing in third position always means failure at the Bernabeu, but this season added several elements to awaken the wrath of the Madridistas. A slow beginning to the season could be expected after the World Cup, but we’ve watched way too many indifferent performances by players that were supposed to carry the team on their shoulders after Cristiano left in the summer. I’ll never understand why Lopetegui was chosen in the first place and also why he was fired so early. After him, Solari burned the starters in the most important week of the season, and the rest was an excruciating sequence of castings for Zidane to check what everyone else already knew: this team has run out of motivation. The only good news come from the few youngsters Solari involved in top level matches, but they seemed bound to be loaned under Zidane.
Athletic (8th): Iñaki Williams statement after the Basques lost the 7th spot in the last match of the season say it all. “I haven’t scored in most of the most important matches of the season”. He’s not the only one who’s under-performed when the going got tough. This squad needs plenty of reinforcements, especially in midfield, but anything that’s not a top 6 finish is failure in Bilbao. The coaching situation did not help, indeed.
Betis (10th): of course, if you consider that Betis got to the semis of the Copa del Rey – and wasted the second leg – and to the quarterfinals of the Europa League, their season looks good enough. If you add to that the fact that they’re the only team who have defeated Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico – the first two at their own stadium! – the season looks even better. However, the hard truth is that they won’t play European competitions next season and they had a very competitive team. Setien hasn’t been able to give them the consistency they needed, and their second half of the season can only be qualified as poor. That said, I can’t think of a better coach for this squad, and I’m pretty sure they won’t do better next season with a new coach.
Villarreal (14th): the yellow submarine was mightily close to sinking, as most of their well reputed players performed abysmally for most of the season. Only Santi Cazorla provided some inspiration, but the mixture of promising youngsters and seasoned veterans that Villarreal trusted to succeed this season failed to deliver. This was a top 6 team, not the relegation-threatened anxious side we’ve seen match after match.
Celta (17th): the story of Celta is that of Iago Aspas, who picked up an injury when the team was in mid table, came back to find them in a relegation spot and got them off the hook with a handful of stellar performances. He’s scored 20 goals in 27 matches, has revived the needy Maxi Gomez and presented his fans with a memorable month of April that they will not forget. That said, the squad had a lot more in them and sounds like a few players do need a disciplinarian coach to perform.
Girona (18th): with the back up of Man City and having maintained their offensive duo – Stuani and Portu – it’s hard to understand how Girona got relegated. I did point out at the beginning of the season that their squad was shorter than last season’s, but I never expected their second half of the season collapse. Perhaps karma also had something to do with this: their fans chanted “You’re getting relegated” to Espanyol when they defeated them 3-1 at their own stadium, and those are the things you should not sing, especially if you’re a newcomer.