End of season thoughts
With the Spanish season finally and officially over (bar the 2nd Division, of course) it behoves this column to satisfy the statistical students and those who like a nice tidy tie-up.
Whatever - let's start with a little self-assessment. Back in January this column made some tentative predictions for the end of the season, whilst commenting on each team's 'surprise factor' - the extent to which they had or had not achieved something unexpected, in both the positive and negative senses. How does that half-term report stand up, now that the final whistle has blown?
Well - all the Champions League places were right, save Villarreal who finished with the dubious prize of the Intertoto, but I got Sevilla badly wrong, whom I expected to fall off to a 'mid-table finish'. Oh well - for many, they turned out to be Spain's team of the year, storming to a UEFA Cup win and almost nicking a Champions League place on the final day. Neither did Deportivo nor Atlético Madrid improve (as I suggested they might), and Celta's predicted fall-away never happened either. Then again, I wasn't the only one to be caught short by Celta's season, with even the mighty Don Balón magazine having predicted that they would struggle all season.
As far as relegation was concerned, I got Málaga right but that was all. I thought Real Sociedad and Mallorca would join them, and although they both struggled to the bitter end, it was Cádiz and Alavés who finally bit the dust. So much for predictions, but hey - it's a funny old game.
The traditional eleven best players of the year, plus a few subs? Well, it's always a bit subjective, but having whiled away two-thirds of the season sitting on the couch watching La Liga play out, I feel reasonably qualified to proffer a humble opinion.
1. Goalkeeper. Andrés Palop (Sevilla). This is always tricky, because there are so many good 'uns in Spain, but I'll stick out my neck for this guy. He stuck it out for six seasons at Valencia, totting up the ridiculous amount of 43 games in all that time. The reason was of course Santi Cañizares, but maybe he should have moved sooner to pastures new. Stay-at-home indecision apart, once given the first-team gloves at Sevilla, he has excelled. Great shot-stopper, good in the air too. Should have gone to Germany as third-choice, instead of Liverpool's Reina.
2. Full-back, right side. Dani Alvés (Sevilla). Emerged from the considerable shadow of Sergio Ramos, this nippy winger-cum full-back has complemented the season's new star, Jesus Navas (see later on) to perfection. Lots of stuff has come from the right side of Sevilla this season, a flank that is normally associated with neighbours Betis and the tubby wizard Joaquín.
3. Full-back , left side. Mariano Andrés Pernía. (Getafe) Everyone else is raving about him, so I guess I better had too. Not only are they raving about the Argentine goal-scoring defender, they have also been complaining loudly that he should have gone to Germany, having this year taken out Spanish nationality. At least his exclusion prompted one of the season's great quotes from his manager Bernd Schuster, who, outraged that Aragonés had picked Chelsea's Del Horno, commented that 'It's obviously better to kick shit out of Messi than to actually have a good season, if you want to go the World Cup.' Oh well - at least he'll know what to do in four years' time.
4. Central defender. Rafa Marquéz (Barcelona) Puyol had a good season, but this guy was the pick for me. Hard as nails but clever with it, quick on his feet and good with the ball, the Mexican has looked the complete defender, despite being injured several times during the season. Shame about that pony-tail though.
5. Central Defender. Sergio Ramós (Real Madrid) Despite the fact that for some he is neither fish nor fowl (is he a full-back or a centre-back?), he has been one of the few things that Real Madrid got right this season. When he's played at centre-half he's looked more convincing than at full-back, especially because he plays in that classic role as semi-sweeper behind a more conventional centre-back like Pavón, Woodgate or Mejía. Twice the player Helguera ever was, he has a big future. Scores goals too, never shirks a tackle, and can play a bit for a defender. Whilst all around him ships have run aground, his lighthouse beam has shone through the fog... if you'll excuse the tortuous metaphor.
6. Right midfield. Jesús Navas (Sevilla) I'm never sure about whether to classify 'wingers' as midfielders or forwards, but anyway, you know what I mean. This young pup - a local boy too - should definitely have gone to Germany in place of the congenitally inconsistent Joaquín, but there you have it. Predicted to be the sensation of the season, he hasn't disappointed. Seems to revel in the big matches, as evidenced by his running riot down Middlesborough's left side in the UEFA Cup final. He's hot, and he's on form. Fast, lithe and seemingly carefree, he will inevitably end up at a bigger club, in the manner of Reyes, Baptista and Ramós.
7. Central midfielder. Marcos Senna (Villarreal) If Luis Aragonés mucked it up with Pernía and Navas, he got it right with Senna. Taking the nationalised Brazilian to the World Cup was a clever move, since the guy that everyone expected to go, Valencia's Baraja, had not had a great season. Senna, meanwhile, has grown into the role of hod-carrier for the sublime Riquelme, whom he replaces here in the first eleven. Watching Senna this season was to observe sacrifice at its very best. Every action was charged with intent, to win the ball from the opposition - which he would invariably do - and to then supply the floating Riquelme. It didn't always come off because the Argentine was often injured, sometimes moody - as befits all geniuses. But Senna is the closest Spain has to a Makelele, only a more ambitious one when it comes to attacking.
8. Left sided midfielder. Ronaldinho (Barcelona) Erm... if Ronaldinho is one, then I'll go for him, I guess. He sort of hangs out over there, from time to time. Predictable choice, of course, but he wins his place in the starting line-up for the simple fact that he is the first player for many a moon to coax reluctant applause from the Bernabéu hard core. Brought tears to the eyes, it did.
9. Striker. David Villa (Valencia) How come Valencia always produce this kind of player? Well - he was at Zaragoza before, but like Mista before him, he's confounded everyone, pushing eventual 'Pichichi' Eto'o all the way and scoring 25 goals this season for an oddly inconsistent team that nevertheless finished third, largely thanks to their new striker. Kept Kluivert on the sidelines all season, and is now the country's hope for Germany. A lot rests on his powerful shoulders. Raúl is now crap, Morientes will be watching from a swimming-pool somewhere, and Torres is the most overrated player since pizza was predicted to replace sliced bread... if you see what I mean.
10. Another two strikers. Savo Milosevic (Osasuna)/ Sam Eto'o (Barcelona) Well let's have a couple. Controversial choices perhaps, but I like old Savo. He seems to have been around for ever, and I can recall him famously spitting at one of his own supporters in his old Aston Villa days. No such nonsense now, and although his eleven goals this season is hardly a quantity to stop the heart, Savo has led the line wonderfully this campaign, linking up play with his subtle touches, nodding down balls to the team's speedy attacking midfielders, and generally making a nuisance of himself, despite the fact that he's been looking half-knackered for various years now. A journeyman striker perhaps, but in the twilight of his career it'll be nice to see him play in the Champions League. Eto'o is the complete striker though. Fast, lethal, and completely barking, his obsessive quest for top scorer at last paid off this year (after having missed out last year on the last day). His goals always seemed to be the vital ones, often winning Barça those games in which they didn't play particularly well. Probably relieved to hear that Henry's staying in London.
11. Man in the hole. Henrique Ewerthon (Zaragoza) That's the funny position that everyone talks about, behind the striker, lurking with intent. Maybe Messi does it best, but since he didn't play enough to qualify, I reckon the bloke at Zaragoza, Ewerthon, was the next best, hanging in there behind Milito and for a while forming a lethal partnership which threatened to take Zaragoza places. They fell away alarmingly towards the end of the season, but the Brazilian showed what he could do - with an electric turn of pace. Might be on his way to bigger things and a larger salalry next season.
• Honourable mentions: Ludovic Delporte (Osasuna), Henrik Larsson (Barcelona), José Manuel Pinto (Celta), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Juan Fernando Arango (Mallorca)
• Managers of the season (apart from Rijkaard): Bernd Schuster (Getafe) and Javier Aguirre (Osasuna). Honourable mention for Juande Ramos (Sevilla).
Now for the stats. Deportivo's goalie Molina played the most minutes (3,632), although Arnau at Málaga made the most saves (153). Shame he let the most through too - 68 in all. Interestingly, Real Madrid's Casillas was second, with 144 saves - which just goes to show what kind of defence he had in front of him (Sergio Ramos excluded).
Our man Beckham managed the most assists yet again, creating 93 goal attempts all season with his passes, a figure way ahead of the man in second place, Bilbao's Fran Yeste (78 and four more games played). Eto'o had the most shots (158), followed by team-mate Ronaldinho on 113.
Dirtiest campaigner was Getafe's Diego Rivas with 119 fouls committed and 16 yellow cards collected, whilst Alavés' Nené was the player most kicked, receiving an astonishing 170 fouls in 38 appearances - which means a lot of time kissing grass. Perhaps it was something he said?
The player who won most tackles was Zaragoza's Gabi Milito, and the player who gave most balls away (396) was Fernando Torres - are you reading Sir Alex?
In more general terms, the season saw a drop-off in the amount of goals scored for the third campaign running. This season there were 936, compared to 982 last season. Defenders getting better, strikers getting worse, or managers getting more cautious? Of the total goals scored, 47.5% were scored by Spaniards, an inferior figure to last season's national-foreigner ratio when 49% were managed by the local boys. Two seasons ago it was 51% Spaniards. A national crisis looms.
Lots more penalties this season though - 122 this season compared to 93 last. No wonder with Diego Rivas around. Red cards have moved up too, from 113 to 151. Blame it on twitchy refs I say. Sevilla and Barça were awarded the most penalties (13 and 12 respectively) which is a mirror of their attacking intents - or official favouritism if you're from Madrid - whilst poor Zaragoza were only awarded two. Alavés and Racing conceded the most, which in the latter case is not surprising, given that the Cantabrian club were kicking lumps out of the opposition all over the park for the entire season. Málaga saw the most red cards, however, but that's often the case for the bottom club. If you can't get the ball, go for something else.
Last but not least, Barça were champs with two points less than last season, but not wishing to take anything away from them, it was an easier domestic campaign for them throughout. It's been good fun though, as ever. Signing off for a week or so now, to re-charge the batteries and prepare the sofa for the World Cup. It's a hard life eh?