The 2012-13 La Liga season finally came to a close this weekend with an exciting final day to cap an exciting and entertaining season. Despite the admittedly top-heavy nature of the league, there's always plenty going on below Barcelona and Real Madrid and their seemingly eternal power struggle at the top of the table.
Don't believe me? I have evidence!
The champion matched a single-season points record. Two teams qualified for the Champions League for the first time in several years with one grabbing a spot on the final day of the season. The 5th, 7th and 9th placed teams are in the Europa League but the 6th and 8th placed teams are not. Four teams fought against relegation on the final day ... see! There's plenty of excitement.
So let us take a trip down memory lane and look back at the season that was in Spain.
The Season in Numbers
- Barcelona clinched the league title in early May and thanks to a final day victory over Malaga, matched the single-season points record set by Real Madrid in 2011-12 with 100 points.
- Barcelona scored the most goals with 115 while Osasuna scored the least with 33 and avoided relegation. Deportivo La Coruña, who were relegated, scored more goals than than all but one of the teams that finished in 10th through 17th. Only two of the teams in those positions scored more goals than Mallorca.
- Depor and Mallorca were the only two teams to concede 70 or more goals this season.
- Barcelona was the only team with double-digit away victories and had more home victories than any team (18). Both Barca and Real Madrid were undefeated at home this season.
- Lionel Messi was the top scorer for the second straight season with 46 goals, missing out on 50 again due to injuries. Cristiano Ronaldo was second with 34, followed by Radamel Falcao (28), Álvaro Negredo (25) and Roberto Soldado (24).
- Andrés Iniesta led the assist table with 16. Mesut Özil was second with 15 and Messi was third with 12.
- Thibaut Courtois won the Zamora Trophy which is awarded by the newspaper Marca to the goalkeeper with least goals-to-games ratio.
- The gap between first place Barcelona and last place Real Zaragoza was 66 points, the second biggest point spread among major European league. Bundesliga led the way with a 70-point gap.
- Barcelona had both the longest winning streak (12 games) and longest unbeaten streak (19). Depor had the longest losing streak (6 games) while Real Zaragoza had the longest winless streak (16 games).
- There were nine managerial changes during the season. Valencia and Depor both switched bosses twice.
Barcelona's 22nd La Liga Title
This season's title race was a bit of a dud to be fair. While some will argue that the very idea of a title race in Spain is by definition a dud due to the fact only two teams ever win, a race between those two teams can still be fun. This year things were pretty much down by Christmas and while there were chances for Real Madrid -- and even Atletico Madrid for a time -- to claw back into the race, Barcelona did what they needed to do despite all the distractions.
Head coach Tito Vilanova, in his first season in charge, missed a large chunk of the middle of the season due to a recurrence of throat cancer. As Vilanova was forced to travel to New York for treatment, assistant coach Jordi Roura managed to steer the ship through some choppy waters. Sure it wasn't a great season by Barcelona standards with only one trophy but considering Vilanova's cancer, the multitude of injuries and the inconsistent play, it was still a solid performance.
Two New-ish Faces in the Champions League
While it's no surprise to see Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Champions League, two Spanish teams who've not featured in the tournament in recent years will get a chance to go toe-to-toe with the best clubs in Europe.
Atletico Madrid, who've been a staple of the Europa League in past seasons, makes the jump to the big time thanks to their third-place finish. It's the first time Atleti will play in the Champions League since the 2009-10 season when they were knocked out in the group stages. In the interim they've won the Europa League twice and returning to the biggest club competition in Europe was always a goal for Diego Simeone's side. Of course, now they'll have to do it without striker Radamel Falcao, who left for the greener pastures of AS Monaco ... and yes, that's a money joke.
Real Sociedad will enter the Champions League in the final qualifying round thanks to their fourth-place finish. Going into the season's final day it looked like Real would miss out after slumping in the final weeks and allowing Valencia to pass them in the table. Their win over Deportivo La Coruña combined with Valencia's loss to Sevilla moved Real back into fourth and into the Champions League for the first time since 2003-04, when they made it to the Round of 16.
Europa League Chaos
As of the writing of this story, we don't know which teams will be participating in next season's Europa League. Yes, the season is over and the table is set but thanks to UEFA, it's still a chaotic mess as we await for appeals to European bans to be heard before we finally determine who will play in Europe.
What we know for certain is that Valencia are in after their disappointing fifth-place finish. Malaga finished 6th but are banned by UEFA from participating in Europe as a punishment for financial fair play violations. The club has appealed the ban and are awaiting a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the ruling will be made this month). Should the ban be overturned, Malaga will be in the Europa League ... probably.
Real Betis are definitely in after finishing in 7th place and they'll enter the Europa League in a qualifying round. Eighth-place Rayo Vallecano are not in at the moment as they were denied their UEFA licence for next season due to financial concerns. The are appealing the decision so once again, we'll have to wait and see if Rayo are able to participate. If they are denied their license -- all teams but Rayo received UEFA approval in the form of a license to participate in tournaments like the UCL and EL -- 9th place Sevilla will get their spot.
Given that all the financial struggles in Spain are starting to catch up with football clubs, situations like this could become a regular occurrence.
On the final day on the season four teams were in the unenviable position of facing possible relegation. When the dust settled it was Celta Vigo who survived, much to the joy of the fans who executed a classic pitch invasion at the final whistle to celebrate their team's great escape.
The much-criticized decision back in February to replace head coach Paco Herrera with Abel Resino paid off in the end as Celta avoided returning to the Segunda Division, where they'd spent the last five seasons.
Meanwhile there was no joy for Deportivo La Coruña, Mallorca and Real Zaragoza, who will all be playing in the Segunda Division next season. For Depor it's their second relegation in three seasons and it could be tough for them to make another quick return to La Liga given that the team is currently wrapped up in bankruptcy proceedings. It's a little bit crazy to recall that Depor were in the Champions League semifinals less than ten years ago.
Mallorca's relegation ends a 16-year run in the top flight and their fans did not take their relegation well after Saturday's match. Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, acting President and major shareholder, was subjected to "Ferrer go now!" chants while fans threw various objects at players, shouting and calling them mercenaries.
Zaragoza have been relegated twice since 2002 and both times bounced right back the next season, earning promotion back into La Liga.
The Segunda Division ends next weekend as only Elche have secured promotion. They'll be joining the top flight for the first time since 1989.
Villarreal are on the verge of making a quick return to La Liga but will likely need a result on the last day to secure automatic promotion. The final spot will be determined via a four-team playoff.
Jose Mourinho has said goodbye to Real Madrid after three tumultuous seasons in charge of Los Merengues. It was a disappointing campaign as Madrid failed to win a major trophy, losing in the Champions League semifinals for the third straight year. They also lose to city rivals Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey final.
The final game on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabéu was a wonderful example of his time with the club as hardcore supporters spent most of the match singing and chanting support towards the departing manager while the rest of the stadium tried to whistle them down.
Manuel Pellegrini is also leaving Spain after three years in charge of Malaga. The Anchovies were one of the great stories of this year's Champions League, nearly upsetting eventual finalist Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Sadly most of their run was overshadowed by the club's financial problems caused by their owner pulling support and forcing the team to operate on a shoestring budget, selling several of their best players to stay afloat.
It doesn't look like anyone will break the monopoly at the top between Barcelona and Real Madrid, though Atletico Madrid could be in the mix with the right signings in the summer. This face will likely continue to saddle La Liga with an unfair label of being a boring league to watch because only two teams have a chance to win. Considering that's the case in several major European leagues nowadays, it's a tired argument.
In the end the only thing that could truly damage Spanish football is itself, as there are storm clouds on the horizon.
There will be continued concern over the financial health of clubs and the harmful imbalance caused by television deals titled to Barcelona and Real Madrid. More disconcerting are accusations of match fixing that have begun to surface in the past week.
As much as we'd all rather be talking about new signings and which teams could challenge for European spots, we'll have to keep one eye on these potentially ugly stories that threaten to do real damage to the league.