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May 14, 2012

Sunday spectacular

I can't quite remember when it began, but final days haven't always been like this. Watching the summing up of the final day on Spain's La Sexta channel on Sunday evening, with the programme switching giddily from ground to ground, you'd have been forgiven for not knowing who had just won the league title and who had just saved themselves from the gallows, pardoned by a sweating messenger at the eleventh hour. But such are the stakes now. Zaragoza's justifiable delight at remaining in the top-flight after trailing the rest by 12 points at one stage resulted in scenes in Getafe resembling a Champions League victory.

At Vallecas, where both Rayo Vallecano and Granada both appeared to be relegated as the 88th minute ticked by, Radamel Falcao - the man of the week - scored for Atletico at Villarreal, and two minutes later the veteran Raul Tamudo, historically a specialist on these occasions, scored for Rayo and sent Villarreal back to the Segunda Division, from whence they came in the 1999-2000 season. In many ways, it was the most shocking of the events from a predictably dramatic afternoon, and most of it happened in Madrid.

On top of all that came the post-match analyses that showed Tamudo to be in an offside position, scoring with a header after the ball had rebounded from the bar. Had the goal been disallowed, Villarreal would have survived. Villarreal were also muttering, post-match, about the three Getafe players sent off in the game against Zaragoza - a match that had attracted the customary 'maletas' (suitcases stuffed with money) rumours. But in the end, as Miguel Angel Lotina acknowledged a few years back, "If you're sweating on the final day, the fault is nobody's but your own". He should know. He's just added Villarreal to the collection of sides he's taken down, the others being Logrono, Celta, Real Sociedad, and Deportivo. Nice chap, though.

In the upper reaches of the food chain, where the bigger fish swim, Malaga followed Manchester City in confirming that the power of purchase will eventually bear fruit, given the appropriate management. Their previous best achievement was winning the Intertoto in 2002, but better times look to be on their way. In claiming the fourth spot, they relegated Sporting de Gijon, but that was one of the more predictable results of the day. Had Sporting won, it would have made no difference, given the way the wind eventually blew, but they will take some cold comfort from the fact that there was still a tiny ray of mathematical hope on the last day. Unlike Racing de Santander, relegated three weeks ago, they can hope to make a quick return.

Racing, who last tasted the Second Division for a single season in 2001-02, may go the way of Asturian neighbours Oviedo if they fail to sort out their numerous issues at boardroom level. Their iconic players, Gonzalo Colsa and Pedro Munitis, will not continue. Up to another 15 players look to be abandoning ship, and at the moment they'll just be happy to get a squad together for next season. You can't help but feel sorry for the players and the supporters. It's all been an appalling mess, but one that seemed unfortunately inevitable.

Jumping around like the cameras, we go back to the very top, where Real Madrid confirmed their extraordinary league season by banging in another four goals, a feat that gave them 121 for the season and 100 points, the mythical figure never before attained in a season of 38 games. Poor Mallorca, whose manager, Joaquin Caparros, had earlier described the fact that they had to finish the season in the Bernabeu as a 'putada' (s*** piece of luck), missed out again on a European place despite an excellent late campaign. Madrid's statistics are extraordinary, and Mourinho's promise of a 'better' second season has been fulfilled. Nine points clear of Barcelona in the end, due to the Catalans' draw at Betis on the Saturday night, they have won 32 games from 38, with identical home and away records, in terms of points. Only Levante and Barcelona defeated them. It may well be that the records set this season, both on a team and an individual level, will stand for some time. I refer, of course, to Leo Messi's 50 goals and the mere 46 scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, data that seems almost unreal. The previous wall of 38, broken more timidly by Ronaldo last season, has been breached by a tidal wave this campaign. In scoring against Mallorca, Ronaldo has now found the net this season against every single club - the first time this has happened in La Liga history. Love him or loathe him, he's been pretty fantastic all campaign.

On Saturday night I saw Real Sociedad defeat Valencia 1-0 in Anoeta to end Unai Emery's four years at the Mestalla on a rather low note, although as an ex-Real Sociedad player, he won't have been over-worried by the result, especially as the game was more focused on the retirement of Mikel Aranburu than on the destiny of the three points. Final games in every season will feature similar scenes, and Racing will be disappointed not to have been able to have given Pedro Munitis the send off he deserves - he was injured - but Aranburu, if you'll permit me a quick valedictory, is another story. It is becoming a rare concept, but the one-team player is a dying breed.

Aranburu made his debut for Sociedad in 1997, and despite overtures from several wealthier sides in the first five years of his career, he stayed at home. Injured after a brutal tackle by Oriol Lazano in 2006, with his knee shattered - famously, referee Pino Zamorano didn't even signal a foul - he returned a year later, almost miraculously, to play another six seasons for the Basque club. He's also a nice guy, who never once spoke badly of Oriol. He had the technical ability to play for Spain, but he was never quite the same after Santander. When Real Sociedad were relegated in 2007, I went to watch them play Eibar, early in the first season of their Segunda Division campaign. Aranburu played wonderfully, and I wrote in the local paper that watching him play in the second tier was like "listening to Montserrat Caballe singing in the bath. The quality's obvious, but the context's all wrong". A couple of weeks later, I saw Aranburu in the coffee bar near my house. He shook my hand and said softly in Basque: "I can't concentrate in training. I keep seeing Montserrat Caballe in the bath."

Valencia played well on Saturday night, as if they were determined to see out Emery on a decent note, despite rumours that he had lost the confidence of the players. The left-sided full-back Jordi Alba was sensational in the first half, and will probably be on his way to the Camp Nou next season. He was another Emery creation, having been a rather more anonymous winger in a previous life until Emery converted him to full-back. Emery has kept Valencia in third spot for three consecutive seasons, despite the constant haemorrhage of top players. It's difficult to understand the Mestalla's hostility towards him, but perhaps they could explain this better than me.

Sticking with Valencia, Levante deservedly grabbed a place in the Europa League, finishing sixth after beating a depressed Athletic 3-0 in the Ciutat de Valencia. "You can't win anything with kids," as Alan Hansen once famously said, but on the same note, it seems that you can win things without them. The old men of Levante have played out a magnificent campaign, only falling out of the top six recently, and for most of the season occupying a Champions League place. There's hope for us all.

Atletico de Madrid were already in the Europa League, and they finished fifth beating Villarreal after their excellent display in Bucharest on Wednesday night. It's all gone well in the end for them, although they'll be slightly frustrated at missing out on the final Champions League spot. They have certainly got their act together since the arrival of Diego Simeone, and Falcao and Adrian have been magnificent all season. Athletic, surprisingly timid in Bucharest, have ended the league campaign rather poorly. However, even if they lose to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, their supporters will look back upon the season with a glow of nostalgia. One only hopes, however, that they will get to Madrid okay. Fifty of their supporters, it seems, arrived in Budapest last Tuesday night, only to discover that their sense of morphology was rather wanton. It cost them dear, the next day, to travel the further 800 kilometres to Bucharest, but at least their geographical knowledge of Europe has now been enhanced.

Let's give out a few prizes.

Player of the Year: Boring boring... okay - it's a hybrid creature, a Siamese twin called the MessiRonaldo. I can't separate them.

Manager of the year: Manolo Jimenez (Zaragoza). As one Spanish journalist remarked, "What's the better achievement? To get 100 points with one of the greatest squads ever assembled, or to resuscitate a squad of dead men?"

Team of the season: Levante, of course. Tipped to go down by almost everyone, they spent 75% of the season in the top four.

Quote of the year: "What's that Cristiano Ronaldo said - about being good-looking? I prefer Scarlett Johansson" - Pep Mel (Betis)

Shock of the season: Villarreal's relegation. The experts of good housekeeping, relegated by two sides (Zaragoza and Rayo) whose financial performance is up there with the Greek government. Something is wrong with the world, especially when you consider that this team from nowhere had not finished below eighth spot since 2003.

Most predictable outcomes: Racing de Santander's final position and Pep Guardiola's departure.

Unexpected players of the year: Adrian (Atletico), Jose Javier Barkero (Levante), Vladimir Weiss (Espanyol), Ruben Castro (Betis), Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia), Michu (Rayo), Odion Ighalo (Granada), Markel Susaeta (Athletic)

One to watch for next season: Ruben Pardo (Real Sociedad)

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