Never mind the bullocks – it’s The Balls
La Liga round-up, 2020-21
It’s been a weird yet wonderful season, a stranger-than-fiction one, interrupted briefly by the birth and death of a super-league that lasted a week but which seemed more serious than a pandemic in its implications – a season played out against the backdrop of empty seats in a theatre of the absurd, waiting for a Godot who never really came.
A season that nevertheless started with promise for the eternal do-a-Leicester-Lille hopers, with Barcelona in existential crisis and the old men of Real Madrid stumbling into one, with early defeats against the mighty Cadiz and Alavés and a drubbing at Valencia creating a glimmer of hope for the rest – with Real Sociedad leading for six weeks armed with a squad of fresh-faced locals whose balls had hardly dropped into their bags – was this the season of democracy, of the death of the dinosaurs?
No such luck. By the New Year the big three were back with differing degrees of uncertainty but still too powerful for the meek. Atlético, with Simeone wearing the permanent expression of a man who has just been pulled over by the police, held on to take their first title since 2014 and deserved it, though their football was generally pragmatic. They were simply more consistent than the rest, and their goalkeeper a colossus. A tubby but reasonably effective Luis Suarez proved a useful addition too, whilst one must also confess that Barcelona did well to even appear as a candidate until the final three weeks (given the apocalyptic events last summer), and that Real Madrid once again defied the odds, injuries and creeping senility of the squad to hang in there until the final day.
The biggest victims of the empty arenas were probably Eibar and Huesca, deprived of the threatening presence of 6,000 hard-core fans on a wet Tuesday night pouring pitiless scorn upon the coiffured heads of aristocratic visitors – but no side was mathematically down until the penultimate week, and the title went to the last hurrah. It turned out to be, against all odds, a half-decent season.
Nevertheless , there’s a scent of change in the air, the feeling of the end of an era. Zidane looks tired of the circus, can see Raúl in the wing-mirror, and has neither the desire nor the gumption to oversee the sort of overhaul that is needed with regard to the squad. He’s squeezed every last bit of testosterone from his Pretorian guard, but Ramos, Marcelo and Modric have rusty bits falling off their swords. Vinicius has improved but cannot be relied on to define the future, Carvajal looks knackered and Toni Kroos – perhaps after his best season for RM, is beginning to wear the expression of a man tired of life. Casemiro and Courtois are wonderful, but they’re going to need some new company. Perhaps the returning Bale will confound them all? (irony check) Ah – leeks may fly over the spanking new Bernabéu, assuming that UEFA even permit them to play in the Champions League next season. Just say sorry Florentino – you know it makes sense.
Ronny Koeman is probably out on his sorry arse too, but that’s because nobody likes him. Maybe that’s his problem. He reminds everybody of Van Gaal, with his glum expression and his conviction that the world exists only as a conspiracy against him. As a coach you’d have to say he did a half-decent job, given the mess he (voluntarily) inherited, the Messi saga and the injury to Ansu Fati. But he ain’t Laporta’s man. And like Zidane, would the clear-out over which Koeman might want to preside include the players that Laporta would prefer to see the back of, either for sporting or financial reasons? Barça’s bank balance is blood-crimson and Koeman has a year to run on his contract. He won’t be cheap to sack.
Whatever – here are the annual Balls, arranged in their usual categories:
- La Liga’s 5 most predictable outcomes:
- Luis Suárez would crown Barça’s season by scoring the goal that won Atlético the title.
- Luis Suárez would weep during the final day’s on-pitch interview.
- Ronaldo (the fat one) would begin to tire of Valladolid (especially with all the bars closed).
- Eibar were relegated after a seven-season fairy-tale. Unfortunately, fairy-tales by definition lose their shine if they last too long.
- Getafe were awarded the most yellow cards during the season (114) and committed the most fouls (631). Lovely team.
- La Liga’s five biggest surprises:
- Getafe did not receive the most red cards. They got 7, but were disappointingly pipped by Celta and Betis, who both who got 8.
- Atlético won the title with 459 shots all season. Eibar went down with 452. Work that one out if you can.
- Valencia took until May to sack Javi Gracia (and have just signed Getafe’s butcher-in-chief, Bordalás).
- Luis Enrique has not picked Iago Aspas for Spain.
- Mateu Lahoz being handed the Champions League Final. Although not quite clinically insane, Lahoz is certainly on the spectrum, as indeed are those who decided to put him in charge for the night. Entertainment, however, is fully guaranteed.
- Seven-and-a-half interesting facts for the season
- Mikel Oyarzabal has size 47 boots and a small ego.
- Jordi Alba has size 39 boots and…….
- Carlos Fernandez lost in the semi-final of the King’s Cup playing for Granada against Athletic, but won in the final of the same season, this season, playing for Real Sociedad.
- Unai Emery has a fetish about Europa League finals. If he doesn’t reach at least the semi-finals he comes out in a rash.
- Toni Kroos is apparently an excellent darts player.
- Real Sociedad, who won the King’s Cup (well, last season’s) and finished first-among-equals (in 5th place) used 29 players during the campaign. Of the 29, 19 came through the youth system, and 14 of the 19 are from the local region of Gipuzkoa, Spain’s smallest province. Oh, and they’re now the only team in Spain to have their A, B and C teams in the country’s top three leagues. Eat dirt, big boys.
- Real Madrid failed to win a single trophy, for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign. Super League? Hmmmm…..
- Five new talents to have emerged
- Pedri. At the age of 18, nobody should be this all-knowing and wise, but the Barcelona attacking mid’ is spookily astute for his tender years. Has he peaked too soon? Hard to say, but he could definitely do with a bit more butifarra down him. At times he looks like a rag doll, but he never quite falls over.
- Martin Zubimendi. Just turned 22, the comparisons with Xabi Alonso (his mentor) are entirely appropriate. Probably the best pivot in Spain for the second half of the season, Real Sociedad’s latest pearl is the player on everyone’s new wish-list, unfortunately.
- Jorge de Frutos. Great name, great player. Fruity George was one of the reasons why Levante looked dangerous and competitive all season. With Lucas Vazquez looking ko for a while, will he return to his old stomping ground at Real Madrid? Like a cross between Michel and Jesus Navas, he’ll give the right side of any side a fruity fizz.
- Bryan Gil. Loaned out by Sevilla to toughen him up in the Mordor hills of Eibar-of-the-north, the gawky Gil fits his retro The Who groupie look and plays like he’s skating on a muddy pitch in the 1970s. Think George Best without the looks. He might be a flash in the pan, but it’ll be interesting to see what Lopetegui does with the 20 year-old next season.
- Miguel Gutiérrez. The 19 year-old came on the other week for Real Madrid and looked a bit useful, at left-back. Maybe he’s rubbish but I thought I’d better just mention Real Madrid.
- The best goal of the campaign.
Everybody has their favourite, but there’s no point arguing about the decision. It’s a bit like your favourite Dylan song. Somebody will always disagree. Honourable mentions you may have thought about will be Benzema’s lovely little side-heel in the clásico, the other Luis Suárez’s (Granada) little dink against Celta, Eibar’s Kike Garcia v Real Madrid, Getafe’s Damián Suárez against Celta….but there’s something about Griezmann’s volley against Osasuna that has me chuckling every time I see it – so that I actually have it on a loop despite my wife threatening to leave me.
Moncayola nods out fairly innocently – although one is told at school not to direct a defensive header to the centre – and the ball arrives at about the height of Griezmann’s knee. Trouble is, he’s already flying with such anticipated forward motion that he arrives at the physics-defining moment when motion + ball movement + power collude to bury the plastic sphere into the bag with such brutal force that it almost negates the elegance of the technique that has determined it. The goal of the season surely? Shame about the porn-star ponytail, flapping in the breeze of the celebration.
- 3 unsung heroes of the season
- Kike Garcia (Eibar): Despite looking like your friendly local butcher, he kept scoring whilst all around him floundered.
- Rafa Mir (Huesca): Has the appearance of the donkey centre-forward of yore, but doesn’t play like one. On loan from Wolves, they might fancy taking him back in the summer.
- Iago Aspas (Celta): Top of the assists-list, he must have insulted Luis Enrique’s grandmother for there is no other reason why he hasn’t been picked for the Euros. Can be a bit of a dork, and he never shuts the f*** up, but there’s no doubting his quality and commitment.
All comments and abuse most welcome.
Phil Ball, San Sebastián