Phil Ball's La Liga Team of the Season
As is traditional now in this column, let's sign off this summer with team of the season.Here are the eleven chaps that I humbly think have been the best in their positions over the season.
Goalkeeper: Andrés Palop (Sevilla)
Not much argument here, I'm sure, and Palop makes the Soccernet grade for the second season running. Whilst it's true that he only finished fourth in La Liga's 'Zamora' trophy this season (behind Abbondanzieri, Valdés and Leo Franco) his performance in the big UEFA Cup games and his leadership from the back enabled Sevilla to be at once an extraordinarily attack-minded side but one who still managed the second-best defensive figures in the league this season. But he would have won it anyway, simply for the wonderful headed goal he scored in extra-time at Shakhtar Donetsk and his testosteronic celebrations afterwards. Great character, great keeper.
Right full-back: Dani Alvés (Sevilla)
Predictable I know, and another repeat of last season, but I see little reason to dethrone him. If anything, he's been better this campaign. Most of Europe's managers can't be wrong. If Juande Ramos goes, then he might too (but not to Man City). Alvés has re-defined the concept of 'defender', and never before in the history of the game has the whole strategy of a team been based around the attacking prowess of its right full-back.
That's the problem for the team that bags him. Will they be able to get the same out of him? Will he be given the same freedom? A unique player - not half as anarchic as he looks - who has lit up La Liga again this season.
Left full-back: Antonio López (Atlético Madrid)
Well he's alright, I suppose. Can't think of anyone else who's stood out in this position this season, given that Asier Del Horno spent most of it on the sidelines. If you can think of anyone better, answers on a postcard (or even an e-mail) please.
Centre-back: Gabi Milito (Zaragoza)
Lots of possibilities here, because despite the hype about Cannavaro, the Italian had a strong second half to the season and is undoubtedly a very intelligent defender. His sidekick, Sergio Ramós, just gets better and better but the surprise package (or perhaps not) was the Argentine Gabi Milito this year. Had he not 'failed' that notorious medical in 2003 at Real Madrid then Ramos might never have been signed, but anyway, he was a big reason for Zaragoza's excellent season, in which he came top of the league's 'recuperaciones' (balls recovered) figures by several miles . He's good in the air, good on the ground, and an authoritative figure in a side who should challenge again next season.
Right midfield: David Beckham (Real Madrid)
Controversial choice perhaps, but no-one does it better. When Beckham is given a clear role, and other players are given clear instructions of how to make runs for him, then he's still the best passer in the game. He just happens to do it from the right channel, most of the time. Despite the emphasis on his goal-making crosses after Capello finally brought him back, he wasn't deployed in a right-winger type role at all. He hung back in the old right-half position, and was careful not to allow opposing defenders to snuff out the potential threat of his passing when he was able to push further up the pitch. If you think that choosing Beckham is a cop-out, then just watch the videos of his games since February. Almost every pass is hit with some intent, and almost every one ends up ruffling defenders in some way. He deserves the trophy he's just got his hands on, since without him, Real Madrid wouldn't have won it.
Central midfield (attacking): Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
It's not always clear exactly what Iniesta is, but he can play right across the midfield, depending on who else is around. As a more dynamic distributor of the ball than say, Xavi, Iniesta has given Barça a potentially dizzying amount of midfield options, and whilst many around him have gone off the boil this season, the pale-faced chap from Albacete has played well and played consistently. He could do with scoring a few more, but that will come.
Central midfield (defensive): David Albelda (Valencia)
Everybody hates Albelda, and everyone complains when he's picked for the national side, but if you were a football manager he'd be the first guy you'd pick. He's become more ruthless with the passing of the years, and nothing much gets past him. He anticipates well, keeps it simple on the ball, and is rarely noticed - until he's sent off or sacrificed for a more offensive option. But he's good, very good. Hard as nails and conspicuous by his absence, as all the best defensive midfielders are. Take him out of the mix, and you start to struggle.
Left midfield: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Don't write in to complain. I know he's not strictly a left-sided midfielder, but rather a left-footed player who sometimes appears in midfield. But we have to get him in somewhere. He doesn't strike me as being a 'forward' either. Like Iniesta, Messi is difficult to define in positional terms, which is what makes him doubly dangerous, of course. But there's little need to explain why he's made the list this season. Potentially the best player in the world, it remains to be seen whether he can retain the physical strength necessary to perform at the highest level for an entire season. His strength on the ball is not in doubt, but rather his susceptibility to injury. He needs to be careful not to further sully his reputation as a bit of a post-Maradona wide-boy (on the park only, of course), but like Iniesta, when all around has been flapping, he's generally tried to produce the goods.
With the arrival of Morientes, Villa took a step back into a deeper role, one in which he continued to excel as he had done as a more conventional striker the year before. Small, quick and intelligent, he's the name on several of the biggest clubs' books, and not without reason. Another 16 goals this season, and his international career blooming, there's nothing he can't do. The complete forward.
Striker: Diego Milito (Zaragoza)
Lots of competition here, particularly from Ruud Van Nistlerooy. But awesome though the Dutchman ultimately proved to be (after silencing the doubters), he did have some rather good service at his disposal. So did Fred Kanouté, another candidate for the spot. But Milito finished with 23 goals, only two behind Van Nistlerooy, supplied by a midfield that was solid but hardly spectacular. He's now becoming one of the most consistent strikers in Europe - quick, aggressive and always in the right place.
Wide left: David Silva
Playing on loan for Second Division Eibar a couple of years ago, he's now being hailed as the brightest new thing on the continent. His rise to fame has been as stunning as it has been sudden, but it's fully deserved. The irony is that Valencia lost one great player (Vicente) and found another just as good, almost by accident. Relying on guile rather than pace, his goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge summed him up well - confident, full of tricks and cool as the proverbial. One for the future.
Subs' bench: Zigic, Ruud Van Nistlerooy, Fred Kanouté, Raúl Tamudo, Sergio Ramós, Javi Navarro.
Manager of the season: Juande Ramos (Sevilla)
Most shots at goal: Ronaldinho (Barcelona)
Most assists: Ibagaza (Mallorca)
Most fouls committed: Alberto Zapater (Zaragoza)
Most yellow cards: Diogo (Zaragoza)
Most fouled: Guti (R Madrid)
Most balls lost: (not over the stand) Pedro Munitis (Santander)
Most boring team of the year: Deportivo de la Coruña
Best surprise package of the year: Recreativo de Huelva
Biggest disappointment of the year: Sevilla and Espanyol not being able to share the UEFA Cup.