Nothing was plain this year in Spain
It seems like business as usual in Spain. Real Madrid and Barcelona lead the Primera Liga, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi top of the scorers’ chart and the Portuguese attacker the player of the season so far.
Yet, 2014 was anything but predictable in Spanish football.
Had we said at the start of the year that Spain’s national team, then European and world champions, would be eliminated in the group stage of the World Cup, we would have been scoffed at. As we would have been had we predicted Atletico Madrid would become the first team in a decade, outside the big two, to win the title.
Real Madrid won a 10th European Cup, the fabled decima they had chased since 2002. Few of their fans expected it, let alone against neighbours Atletico in an all-Madrid European Cup final. Atletico were seconds from victory until Sergio Ramos’s equaliser in added time.
Madrid sold their man of the match, Angel di Maria, before the summer was out while Barcelona broke their club record by signing Luis Suarez, who had disgraced himself in Brazil with another biting episode.
It was an annus horribilis for the trophyless Catalans. A Fifa ban preventing them signing more players until 2016 was upheld, their president stepped down in a corruption scandal, former coach Tito Vilanova died at 45 and two of their three forwards were embroiled in tax-avoidance sagas. For once, Suarez escaped that controversy.
Barca are a point behind Madrid, though the new world champions have played a game less. They also defeated Luis Enrique’s team by two goals for the first time since 2008 in October’s clasico.
Madrid look like what they are: the best team in the world. They are on a 22-match winning run, with strength in depth all over the pitch. Carlo Ancelotti’s side are favourites for a first title since 2012 and hold a four-point lead, plus a game in hand over Atletico, one of two teams to beat them so far. Barca have immense talents but are less than their usual spectacular selves.
Spain’s top three is likely to be as it was last season, but the fight for the fourth Uefa Champions League spot is intriguing. Valencia, in fourth, are back, thanks to new owner Peter Lim and agent Jorge Mendes, who is using the club as a platform to promote the considerable talent signed to his agency. With their new stadium still incomplete, they have made the Mestalla a fortress again, their only loss coming in injury time against Barca.
Villarreal, in fifth, have been equally impressive, especially in inflicting Atletico’s only home defeat, while Europa League holders Sevilla are one of the other four clubs separated by one point between fourth and seventh.
In seventh are Malaga, whose achievements are as impressive as anyone’s. Champions League quarter-finalists in 2013, they underwent drastic cuts and only four players remain from the side, then led by Manuel Pellegrini, defeated by Borussia Dortmund 20 months ago. Malaga’s Qatari owners withdrew significant funding. The 10 players signed in the summer cost €1.3 million (Dh5.8m), and their annual budget dropped from €120m two years ago to €39m now.
Malaga have a club record 30 points after 16 matches, 10 more than Celta de Vigo in eighth. That makes them well-positioned to receive a bigger cut of the television money when Spain’s fairer distribution of broadcasting revenues kicks in next year.
The impressive performances are not restricted to the top of the table. That Eibar, on average crowds of 2,900, got promoted with a team who had played together in the third division is a miracle.
That they are ninth in the Primera Liga is staggering. The smallest team to reach the top flight are the highest-ranked Basque team, with Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad struggling after reaching Europe last term.
La Real have turned to David Moyes, who recently visited a team to improve his knowledge of Spanish football.
That team was Eibar.
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Published: December 24, 2014 04:00 AM