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At the end of the day

Spooky though it may seem, Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 in the Bernabeu 23 years ago to take the Spanish title whilst Real Sociedad were beating Atletico Madrid 2-0 at home - a situation repeated almost to the letter this season, although the Basques went one better this time and won 3-0 - not that it mattered.

What Real Madrid do better than any other club is 'augantar la presion' (take the pressure) and despite losing a month ago 1-5 at home to Mallorca, they got their act together when it mattered.

Real Sociedad, last season's relegation candidates turned team of the year, pushed them all the way and led for almost the whole of the first half of the season, but couldn't quite sustain it to the finishing post.

But it's been an excellent season. Even as late as June 22nd the Spanish still had a day to look forward to.

38 degrees in Madrid and the rest of Europe's footballers on their holidays, but the galactic ones were capable of one last show after a long tiring season.

For 20 minutes or so, after Bittor Alkiza equalised Ronaldo's opener, it was looking like a potentially poetic afternoon, especially given that the prodigal son Alkiza was once of Real Sociedad, and was playing his last game for Athletic before possibly returning to his home team next season, if rumours are to be believed.

But when Roberto Carlos decided to demonstrate to the watching Becks why he would prefer to continue taking the free-kicks next season, putting Madrid back in the lead on the stroke of half-time, it was all over bar the shouting.

It's difficult to know whether Madrid really feel that they deserve the title this time, but the word 'deserve' is a complex term in football. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but in the end football supporters (and players) are not generally renowned for their objectivity.

Better to let the statistics talk than debate endlessly whose was the greater merit. Sociedad were a big surprise, played some great stuff and unveiled an amazing new player to the world, the Turk Nihat.

But Madrid played a lot more games on all fronts, and did very well to pick themselves up from various alleged crises to win the title. Then again, their better stocked squad was assembled for precisely that reason - but these arguments have a tendency to ultimately cancel each other out.

Raul is tackled by Bittor Alkiza (r), who had Madrilenos hearts briefly in mouth.
Raul is tackled by Bittor Alkiza (r), who had Madrilenos hearts briefly in mouth.

They're not unhappy in San Sebastian with the second spot after 3 seasons of unremitting woe, although there are those who will say that the right-leaning political climate of Spain is a guarantee that Madrid will ultimately triumph against a club who like to wave a different coloured flag.

With the country's president a paid-up member of Real Madrid there has always been the feeling in Basque circles that whilst Sociedad have not suffered ostensibly more than others this season from refereeing decisions the prevailing winds in the peninsula will generally blow in Madrid's favour.

This is because referees are not necessarily biased or paid off - as they allegedly were in the old days - but rather that they are only human, and in general the country views the Basques with a certain degree of fear and loathing.

It is not the remit of this column to comment on the rights and wrongs of this reality, but the sensation that it is almost impossible for a Basque side to win the league these days is palpable, up north at least. Call it paranoia if you will, but that's what the folks feel.

Madrid won't have done themselves too many favours in Basque eyes either by preparing expensive banners and posters proclaiming 'Champions, 29th League' before the final game was played, to be brought out triumphantly after the final whistle. Arrogant presumption or just a winning mentality? It depends, as ever, on which side of the fence you sit. And in Spain, the beauty of it is that no-one sits on it (the fence).

But let's not end the season on a sour note. For all their reputation, the Bernabeu crowd remained respectfully hushed during the minute's silence for Bilbao's young president, Javier Uria, who died last week of cancer at the age of 41.

It was an impressive sight, given the opportunities that such a scene potentially presented to various individuals, just as up in San Sebastian Atletico Madrid behaved themselves impeccably on a highly-charged occasion, especially given the bad blood between the two sides in recent years.

'Mono' Burgos made his comeback appearance after overcoming cancer and treated the onlookers to his usual repertoire of gaffes, great saves and ill-judged charges out of his area, but the game is all the brighter for his eccentric presence.

Elsewhere, Barcelona were giving themselves renewed hope for the season to come, taking advantage of Bilbao's defeat to sneak into the final UEFA place.

It's not been a good year there, and the miracle is that they have eventually plucked something up from out of the rubble. Perhaps this is evidence of the fact that La Liga is not as strong as it is alleged to be, and that its so-called growing democracy is just another word for the decline of its more recent pretenders to the crown - Valencia and Deportivo in particular.

Difficult to say, although the bottom half of the league this season has at times looked a bit rough.

Whatever the case, I would like to give five awards for the players and managers who have most brightened the skies this season, if I may be so bold. In no particular order:

Nihat Kahveci: Shaun Ryder lookalike and find of the season.
Nihat Kahveci: Shaun Ryder lookalike and find of the season.

1. Ronaldo: for proving that fat is not a footballing issue, despite all the jibes. Shame about the final haircut though.

2. Nihat: for playing like somebody out of an old-fashioned boy's comic.

3. Dmitri Piterman: For ruffling sundry feathers, for keeping Racing Santander alive, but most of all for his answer to a journalist who questioned his right to train footballers without a qualification; 'There's a dork out there running the most powerful country in the world without a qualification to his name. And you want me to have a diploma to run a football team?'

4. Jon Aloisi: After a particularly lucky strike for Osasuna early in the season, the ex -Portsmouth forward was asked if he thought there had been an element of divine intervention in the goal. Aloisi, after several seconds of philosophical reflection, replied 'Don't think so matey. God's up there and I'm down here.'

5. Last but not least, Mallorca's Sam Eto'o, who after a comprehensive mugging of Real Madrid's defence declared 'I'm not as pretty as Beckham, but I'm a better player.' At least he'll get the chance to prove it on both counts next year.

All that is left us now is the King's Cup, and then beyond - a summer of unremitting tedium. As Albert Camus wisely remarked, 'Time is an awkward inconvenience between football matches'. Roll on September.


  • Out now! Phil's new book on Real Madrid, White Storm. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk