La Liga's final day will complete the league's best story of the season
FC Barcelona's title is long gone, won three weeks back and buried under the laments from Liverpool. Zinedine Zidane gave up on winning anything ages ago now, and the maths deserted Real Madrid soon after. Atletico Madrid knew that second place was theirs, and that's confirmed now too. It's two weeks since Rayo Vallecano were relegated and Huesca joined them barely minutes later. Six days ago, Girona were gone, or as good as. And so here we are on the eve of the final day of the league with nothing left to play for, a load of teams seeing out the season, already long switched-off mentally for the summer.
The top three are decided and the bottom three basically decided, but it's not over yet. And what awaits could be historic. If you looked at the front pages of the papers going back more than a month now -- when the football finally gave way to something that actually matters: the market -- you wouldn't think so, but there have been games going on. And some of them matter. Some of them still do, even now. A lot. "We'll fight to the final day," Rayo boss Paco Jemez said, echoing what every manager says everywhere, but they won't. Others will. Fates are still to be defined.
Five teams were fighting off the final relegation place last week. Now, with Villarreal, Real Valladolid and Levante safe, only two are: Girona and Celta Vigo.
The Galicians have had a weird week -- two players got in trouble for speeding on scooters, another found himself flaking after a 25-day fruit-only diet and a third was filmed leaping into his pool when he's injured -- but it would take something even weirder for them to be dragged into the second division: Celta would have to lose at home to already-relegated Rayo Vallecano while Girona would have to win at Alaves. And even that wouldn't be enough unless Girona did six goals better.
Girona cling to a one last hope -- a six-point and six-goal swing -- or they would if they thought there was any hope to cling to. Instead, they have given up, defeated. At the end of their defeat to Levante, even the stadium announcer declared it over. "We'll be back!" he shouted, and he didn't mean this week. Their manager broke down and cried; he, like their captain, said sorry. It was all over. And as if to underline that in red, striker Cristhian Stuani is now out injured -- 53 percent of their goals and 99.99 percent of their chances gone.
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So, the excitement will instead be in the fight for the European places -- the final Champions League spot and three more for the Europa League -- where there are six teams, four places and 81 combinations involved. This is how the table looks right now:
4. Valencia, 58 points
5. Getafe, 58 points
6. Sevilla, 56 points
7. Athletic, 53 points
8. Real Sociedad, 50 points
9. Espanyol, 50 points
At 4:15 CET on Saturday afternoon, Espanyol face Real Sociedad, Athletic go to Sevilla, Valencia play at Valladolid and Getafe host Villarreal.
Things have changed; this has been a season of shifts, the middle of the table so tight that it was packed with teams looking up and down at the same time: turn this way, there's Europe; turn that, there's relegation. For others, the shift was even more dramatic.
Sevilla led the league and fell away. Valencia couldn't win and couldn't score, racking up draw after draw, and started to wonder if they really could be dragged into relegation. Alaves went top; it was astonishing, everyone agreed, and they were proved right by what came next: they haven't won in nine and have won just three of the past 19. Espanyol led the way then fell away, only returning much later. In 2018, only three teams were better than Real Betis, but they have collapsed. And 2018 was the worst year in Athletic's history.
But now look.
Now here they are on the edge of Europe. By the winter, Athletic were on the verge of relegation for the first time in their entire history. They had won just once, on the opening day, 13 games ago by that point, and they didn't look like winning any games any time soon. They had lost Kepa Arrizabalaga in the summer and Aymeric Laporte the previous January, and their strikers weren't scoring. Aritz Aduriz was 37, Raul Garcia had a knee injury, and Inaki Williams hadn't scored at home in two years. They were in the relegation zone and appeared to be staying there. The club's interim board, preparing for elections and theoretically not allowed to do anything else, applied a clause in the constitution that permitted them to change the manager in the event of an emergency.
Eduardo Berizzo was sacked; in his place came Gaizka Garitano on a rescue mission like his father's more than a decade earlier. And like his father, Gaizka saved them. He didn't just save them, in fact: 12 wins later, he dragged them to gates of Europe. A point would be enough this weekend. Real Sociedad and Espanyol, two teams who have also watched relegation draw near, if never anything like as near as Athletic did, wouldn't be able to catch them. Win and Athletic would climb above Sevilla. And that, Williams said, would be amazing.
Which it would.
Just not as amazing as what is happening above them. Valencia had started to wonder if, absurd though it sounded, a relegation fight might become a reality. Their manager was about to be summoned to Singapore, the axe awaiting him. His director general saved him from his owner. And the captain, Dani Parejo, had to appeal to everyone not to give up. "It's only January," he insisted. He was right: it took another 17 matches for Valencia to lose, the climb up the table irresistible until they went to Rayo. "This is incredible," Marcelino said when they moved into a Champions League place last week. It was the first time they had been there all season. Talk about timing.
Sevilla have been there 21 weeks, Espanyol five and Alaves 13. Then there's Getafe.
Getafe have been there for 11 weeks -- of the past 13. They go into the final day with a European place guaranteed and a Champions League place close, albeit no longer in their hands. None of which makes much sense: Getafe's ground is called the Coliseum, which always felt like an inside joke, one of those ironic nicknames, like some giant beast of a bloke whose mates call him "Tiny," a Skoda Fabia called "KITT." It's not big and it doesn't always fill. It's not fair, particularly on the loyal and proud that do go every week, but they have become a kind of cheap gag, a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for not having many fans. There's the temptation to revive that old joke about the PA announcer reeling off the lineup of the supporters. They have the third-smallest average attendance in the first division.
There's no star, no big signing; this is a team of expendables, players who thought they'd never be here. Some were has-beens, more were never-weres, all of them are nearly-ares now. Their three forwards have 36 goals between them -- and 99 years. There's experience there and lots of it, but there's more experience of the second division than there is of the Champions League. Only one of them has reached a final, and that was 13 years ago: Mathieu Flamini joined them on trial, a man without a club. They have a budget a 16th the size of Barcelona's, and their starting XI costs around a 10th of one Gareth Bale.
"Just playing in the third division was amazing to me," striker Jaime Mata says. Now, the Champions League is close -- there to be played for on the final day.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. And yet, looking at the past few weeks, it's not supposed to be this way either. Getafe had held fourth, gripping it tight, but they might be denied at the very last, on the head-to-head record. They have to get a better result than Valencia this weekend to claim a first ever Champions League place. On a final day that doesn't matter for most but does matter for arguably the best story and the greatest achievement of them all. The team that have already performed a miracle need one more.