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May 7, 2012

Invisible hand

El señor Ball and I chose to swap columns - he wrote a remarkably accurate Quiniela on Friday, while here's my weekend summary - in what was probably one of the busiest weeks in Spanish football this year. Even though the league title already had a rightful owner in Real Madrid after their sixteenth away win of the season in San Mamés last Wednesday, there was still plenty to decide in the standings and several off-the-pitch events demanded our undivided attention.

Josep Guardiola's emotional departure before a packed Camp Nou served as the cathartic end of an unprecedentedly successful four-year spell as Barcelona's manager, symbolically capped by a four-goal performance from Lionel Messi. The diminutive Argentine, who under Guardiola evolved from an intimidating but inconsistant offensive threat to an almost unstoppable scoring machine, keeps breaking records, and his 50 goals in this La Liga season with one match left already sound like an almost extraterrestrial achievement.

On a cold Saturday night, Guardiola enjoyed a heartfelt and well-organised departure event, with plenty of demonstrations of affection from both the squad and the stands. However, one suspects that his most rewarding moment, other than Messi's sincere hug after the archetypical false nine scored his fourth of the night, happened when everyone had left the stadium and Pep came back to the pitch to take some pictures with his family, as though trying to capture what remained of those unforgettable moments his squad have brought him since he took over in the summer of 2008.

However powerful and understandable his reasons might be, Guardiola's farewell does feel like a retreat. Pep leaves Barcelona when the club sit on the verge of becoming one of the greatest football dynasties ever. By walking away he also deprives us of one of the most polarising football rivalries of all time, just when his antagonism with Jose Mourinho had reached dizzying heights. These two top-level coaches, with almost opposite football creeds, going at it full speed while managing two of the biggest football clubs in the world has brought us extremely intense moments of discussion and controversy during the last two seasons, and Guardiola's stepping down somehow makes us, football fans, feel let down.

Some people quite familiar with Barcelona's day-to-day activities maintain that his substitute, the eye-poked Tito Vilanova, will indeed surprise many, as he designed several of the tactical innovations that this Barcelona leveraged to win so consistently since the coaching duo took over. Time will tell, although a No. 2 does not necessarily know how to become a No. 2 - as psychologists Myers and Briggs once taught us.

In any case, the Yin and Yang dynamic that Phil Ball so often mentions while discussing the Real Madrid-Barcelona struggle seemed to show up yet again. While the Barcelonistas were saying goodbye to their most successful coach ever, the Madridistas further celebrated their 32nd La Liga title with a last-gasp victory in Granada, in a convoluted match that leaves the Merengues only three points away from the stunning 100-point mark, and the Granadinos having to fight for their lives next weekend in Vallecas just when they thought they were safe. The hosts lost their temper in the dying minutes of the match, and their fatal own goal coupled with their foul-mouthed interactions with the referee could cost them dear in their final fixture of the season.

But now that we've entered into the danger zone discussion, let me inform you that the 'invisible hand' that, according to renowned financial expert Adam Smith, used to manage the capitalist economy has switched focus to La Liga's relegation battle, making sure that the final matches of the season keep alive our interest in the competition.

Season after season, surprising stories of amazing escapes or unexpected collapses happen, bringing the level of intensity in these last few matches to unbearable heights for the fans of those teams involved. However, this year everything looked disappointingly clear as early as April 22: Racing, Sporting and Zaragoza were going down, while the remaining teams in the bottom half of the table could enjoy a peaceful end of the season and plan for the upcoming year.

But then the invisible hand decided to take action. Under its spell, Zaragoza won three matches in a row (no Zaragocista can possibly remember when the last time that this happened was); Sporting got three wins in their last four, including a more-than-bizarre 3-0 victory over Espanyol in Cornella; Rayo managed the impressive feat of losing six consecutive matches, and suddenly we found ourselves enjoying a full-blown relegation battle almost out of nowhere. Now Zaragoza, Sporting, Rayo, Villarreal and even Granada will fight to avoid the two remaining passports to the Segunda in the final match of the season.

Zaragoza and Rayo present the most interesting cases. The latter's shocking slump in form started a few days after they thrashed Osasuna 6-0 at home. At that point, they sat only three points away from a Europa League spot. Six defeats and twenty goals conceded later, the average Rayista supporter undergoes the same level of outrage and revolt against the club's administrators as the average Zaragocista felt a couple of months back, when the questionable methods of their seemingly eternal president Agapito Iglesias appeared destined to take Zaragoza back to the Segunda Division.

The tables have now turned, and while Zaragoza's unforeseen resurrection has brought every single Blanquillo supporter back to the stadium, agreeing to an unsigned truce with Mr Iglesias, the Rayistas can't stop complaining about administrators, coach, players, refs and whoever dares to get anywhere near Vallecas.

But the winners of this season's 'Complain About Your Coach' award have to be the Valencianistas. In a very different atmosphere than that of the Camp Nou, on Saturday evening the Ches bid their lukewarm farewell to Unai Emery, an unspectacular but consistent gaffer that, despite a constant stream of disciplinary issues under his tenure, said goodbye to Mestalla leaving the club in a Champions League spot for the third consecutive season. Their new manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, joins Manuel Pellegrini and Mauricio Pochettino in a confusingly named trio of Italian-South American managers that will become the nightmare of us La Liga journalists and proof readers alike.

In the final set of fixtures of the season, every match involving a team with anything at stake will be played at 2000 local time [1900 GMT] on Sunday. One of football's beautiful traits determines that no matter how much you hate your team's president, nor how you wish to terminate a certain forward's contract, or, in my case, how much I despise my team's current coach, once you get to the final matches of the season you just close ranks and blindly root for your side.

If your club got themselves involved in any of the pending La Liga battles, you already know that the last match of the season is the right time to leave aside your criticisms and support them for these last agonising 90 minutes. If you have nothing to root for, I suggest that you choose another outfit, get familiarised with their fight over the week, and desperately back them on Sunday night. The invisible hand will make sure that you don't forget the experience.

• Follow Eduardo Alvarez on Twitter @EdAlvarezSpain

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