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Hunger is back at Barca

Barcelona
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Spanish D-Day

So it's all over for another year, save the final act at Wembley next week. As in the English Premier League, the final stages of the season in La Liga seemed more exciting with regard to the relegation issues than with the destiny of the top spots. There are probably two reasons for this relatively new phenomenon. The first is that the identity of the top four sides now (in either league) is hardly a secret, and there have been few surprise sides emerging in recent years to challenge the select groups who occupy the top of the pyramid in their respective leagues.

But another consideration would seem to be the fact that to drop out of the top division now is a more serious thing than it ever was previously. Nobody has ever enjoyed being relegated, but the massive drop in income that results in being cast out of the current version of paradise means that teams act with greater desperation to avoid it, and the media mounts an ever-more frenzied campaign to focus on it. One famous media outlet in Britain referred to Sunday as 'Premier League D-Day'. D for Drop? I guess so.

In Spain, the frenzy was no less, although the Federation, in another act of wisdom, opted for those games where nothing was at stake to be played at the hour of their choosing, and those with dust still to settle at 22.00 hours. In so doing, they finally killed off any hope of instilling some professionalism into the final weeks of any future Spanish campaign, because this division of priorities implicitly admits that some games matter and others do not. This is true, of course, as is the fact that Santa Claus doesn't exist. But you don't tell the kiddies this because the truth is less important than keeping up the myth. The Premier League played all its games at the same time. That's how it should be.

Talking of the letter 'D', most Spanish newspapers on the Sunday (all the games were played on the Saturday night) referred to the 'surprise' result at the Riazor, where Deportivo lost at home 2-0 to Valencia, and were returned to the Second Division, 20 years after their last promotion. We can consider the importance of this relegation in a moment, but the 'surprise' did not refer to Depor's fate so much as to the fact that Valencia had 'nothing to play for' - a phenomenon discussed in this column last week.

They already had third place in the bag, and were expected, thus the logic goes, to take it easy against the Galicians, who needed a win. If you watch the goals (the first by Aduriz in the third minute) there does seem to be a certain reluctance on the part of the scorers, but as with Soldado's killer later on, the players were almost acting as if by reflex, unable to stop themselves scoring.

Suspicions that Valencia had received some maletines (figurative suitcases stuffed with cash) from one of the other sides involved in the struggle will always remain mere speculation - since nobody in Spain ever bothers to investigate these matters - but a certain team recently bought out by wealthy overseas owners would have had an interest in making an offer. Then again, they could have just got together with the rest and had a whip-round. Deportivo were the obvious victims, although a few euros sent in Levante's direction (to beat Zaragoza) was also an option. Levante needed the money, but Valencia are not exactly rolling in the stuff these days. Most of their income immediately disappears in the form of interest payments.

And so Valencia became the bestia negra (bogey man) of Deportivo once again, 16 years after the notorious final match when Deportivo's Djukic missed the penalty in the last minute and deprived his team of their first-ever league title, although they would go on to win it six years later.

Scenes at the end of the game, with the Deportivo fans weeping, their president staring into space and Miguel Angel Lotina blaming everything but himself in the press conference was not a sight being celebrated in Spain, except perhaps in Vigo. Deportivo remain popular, and the relative homeliness of the institution and their sudden irruption onto the scene in the 1990s, culminating in the 'Super Depor' team of Bebeto, Fran, Mauro Silva et al, has fixed the club firmly in the Spanish consciousness.

Because they were promoted the year I arrived to live in Spain, and have remained in the top flight ever since, I feel a kind of connection to them. I also feel that their relegation is symbolic of how La Liga has developed over the last seven years. In the first half of the Noughties, it still looked as though both Valencia and Deportivo could hang in there and become part of a new elite, but alas, it was merely an interregnum. Florentino Perez and the Galáctico revolution did for the dream, and now Valencia are in financial straits (but keeping up their fine footballing traditions) and Deportivo are back in the wilderness. 'Twas but a dream.

Even in San Sebastian, where Depor's defeat came as a soothing balm to the two sides slugging it out on Saturday night - Real Sociedad and Getafe, the manager of the former (Martin Lasarte) felt no pleasure at the Galicians' relegation, since he was once their centre-half. Ironically, the manager whom Lasarte has condemned to finding a new job was at the helm of Real Sociedad when they went down four years ago.

The final games were gagged under a law of scoreboard omertà, where none of the stadia hosting one of the 10 o'clock matches was allowed to announce the scores from the other games. Fair enough, but of course the entire stadium of Anoeta had one ear tuned to the pitch and the other with a wire dangling down to the mobile phone. When Getafe scored in the first half, I felt only mildly preoccupied, mainly because Deportivo were already losing. When Sociedad equalised in the second half, the game was suddenly transformed into a non-aggression pact, particularly when news of Valencia's second goal filtered through. It's difficult to see how these matters are relayed to the players, but the home side suddenly began to play keep-ball, and for the final half-hour neither side ventured much over the half-way line. The crowd whistled its initial disapproval, but soon adjusted to the idea, given the importance of staying up for both sides.

It doesn't really matter how many years you spend watching football, its ability to bring together a community and unite a bunch of people for 90 minutes in an orgy of simple ambition - to stay in the First Division - never ceases to amaze. The atmosphere in Anoeta on Saturday night was wonderful. In some ways, the avoidance of relegation on the season's final day is as important as winning a trophy. It's the new post-modern emotion. If you can't be a winner, at least you can avoid being a loser. It's something to celebrate. Who wants to be in the mid-table of life, on your mental vacations four games from the end of the season? Not me sir. There's nothing better than being involved in a final-day fight to the death. It's like aerobic exercise - keeps the heart strong and the mind alert.

Getafe's survival and Rayo Vallecano's promotion means that the Community of Madrid will have four teams in the top flight for the first time in its history. And talking of history, Cristiano Ronaldo put paid to all arguments by scoring another couple against poor Almeria in Madrid's modest 8-1 win, putting him on 40 or 41, but surpassing the previous record of 38. He has not taken long to write himself into La Liga's history books, and barring serious injury or abduction by aliens, he will continue to bang 'em in.

The Bernabéu ended the season fairly chuffed with what they've seen, the campaign's final goal scored by the youngster Joselu (also a Galician, but a happier one on the day). Aitor Karanka once again did the post-match press conference, and dropped in the sarky line, '102 goals isn't bad for a defensive team', echoing almost the same phrase used by John Toshack in the same room in 1990 when his team had finished with a record 107. Their last four games yielded 21 goals, and it has to be said that when they have played with freedom and with their best weaponry, they have looked a more threatening and, dare one say it, entertaining side than last season. All this despite 102 goals under Pellegrini as well, and four more points from him too. But the Madridistas have spoken. They've forgiven the strange aberrations of some of the clasicos, and they want Mourinho to stay.

Barcelona rested the players who will most likely take the field at Wembley next Saturday, but their game at Malaga had no consequences for the any of the league's unresolved issues. The midfield was basically from the reserve side, with Andreu Fontas, Thiago and Sergi Roberto all starting the game. And after a little wobble in the first half, the reserves proved too much for in-form Malaga, winning 3-1 and concluding yet another scary campaign for the champions. They will find it tougher against Manchester United next weekend - certainly more than the last time they met, but I still think they'll win it.

Team of the Season: Valencia. Despite losing their two best players, despite having no money, despite being knocked out of the Champions League by Schalke, despite treating their excellent manager Unai Emery appallingly, and despite constant moaning from the fans, they've finished third again, with exactly the same points tally as last season (when they had Davids Villa and Silva).

Manager of the Season: I'm not sure if there is one, but José Mourinho has certainly kept us all entertained. Marcelino also, for keeping Santander up, and generally retaining a stoical dignity in the face of the backroom farce?

Surprise team of the season: Espanyol did better than expected, but fell away in the second half of the season. Athletic Bilbao get the vote, confounding the experts again and finishing sixth.

Player of the season: I guess Cristiano Ronaldo deserves the title for his historic feats, but Leo Messi was awesome again. I liked Borja Valero for Villarreal, and Kun Agüero at Atlético was much more consistent, despite losing his partner Forlan and despite the usual comedy show from many of his colleagues.

Emerging player of the season: José Callejon turned a few heads at Espanyol, including those in the boardroom at Real Madrid, and Jonathan de Guzman looks a fine prospect, despite Mallorca's poor season.

Most disappointing team of the season: Mallorca. They have money problems, sure. But for a side deprived (some say unfairly) of a place in Europe last season, their finish of one place above the drop zone was surprising, as was Getafe's similar fall from grace.

Most predictable outcome: Everybody said that Almeria would go down. They didn't disappoint.

Quote of the season: "We shouldn't feel bad because we did everything with the right intentions." (Juanma Lillo, after his side Almería had just lost 8-0 at home to Barcelona)

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