Barcelona, just two games short of being crowned Spanish football’s ‘history boys’, will now forever be remembered as the ‘nearly men’ of the 2017-18 La Liga season – despite winning the league at a canter.
But also as double champions, league and cup. What a bizarre season for Ernesto Valverde’s team.
It would be said that it was not a great idea to give your star man the weekend off just two matches away from the club’s date with destiny, but the team scored four goals.
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That is not where the problem lies. The exclusion of both Umtiti and Piqué in central defence had the look of an accident waiting to happen, especially with Yerry Mina in the team. Piqué actually did come on in the 31st minute for the injured Vermaelen, by which time Barcelona were two goals down.
The late Geoffrey Howe once told a startled House of Commons in his resignation speech that decisions made by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, before sending him off to negotiate in Europe was akin to “sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”
The Barcelona team will know exactly what he meant.
Barcelona’s almost contemptuous dismissal of a Levante side that on current form (eight wins in the last ten games) is actually top of the table and with it the assumption that even without Messi, Umititi and Piqué, Barcelona would have more than enough to see off the challenge of a team with nothing but pride to play for, was effectively a team talk of Churchillian proportions for Valencia’s second side.
But what is showed us above all is that this is a Barcelona side that has flattered to deceive at crucial times and that if its talisman has an off-day, if he ‘isn’t there’ metaphorically (Roma) or literally (Levante) then this is a Barcelona side that is eminently beatable.
Messi has dug Barcelona out of the ‘do-do’ on numerous occasions this season and had he been on the bench at Levante would probably have done so yet again. I say probably because we’ll never know and the thing that will rankle most with Barcelona fans is the overwhelming feeling that, one way or another, they should have known.
Barcelona will, as ever, complain about refereeing decisions, the rub of the green and anything else they can grasp onto but the simple reality is, as I have been saying all season, that this is a side far too reliant on the greatest player in the history of football.
And where to begin with Real Madrid’s season?
At the start of the season when they took Barcelona apart in the Spanish Super Cup, forget Spain, this looked unquestionably the best side in Europe.
Zinadine Zidane’s ludicrously happy, ‘all for one and for all’, band of swashbuckling musketeers looked unbeatable and the truth is nobody actually knew why.
Man management and keeping everyone happy was seen at the key to a success for a coach not best renowned for his tactical acumen.
And then the wheels well and truly fell off the bus when Real Madrid managed just two points out of their first three home league games, drawing with Levante and Valencia and losing to Real Betis.
As with Forrest Gump’s mum’s box of chocolates, this was indeed a side that you “never knew what you were going to get.”
In the Champions League, Ronaldo hit a brace, and Gareth Bale scored one as Borussia Dortmund were put to the sword in their own backyard and then as early as week ten an abject 2-1 defeat at newly promoted Girona effectively told us two things, namely that Girona would probably not be going down and Real Madrid, already eight points adrift, were unlikely to retain their title.
They went off for their Christmas break a full 14 points behind Barcelona after being taken apart by their bitterest of rivals 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. Nobody said it because the reality is you never bet against Real Madrid, but the truth was that as far as a Real v Barca title battle, the race was effectively run even before the New Year chimed in.
Will Real Madrid win the Champions League? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve given up trying to second guess what Madrid side will actually turn up.
And what of Atletico? A poor Champions League campaign to go with another resolute defensive campaigns from one of the stingiest back lines in the world that has conceded just 20 league goals all season, less than any club in the big five European leagues.
Now assured of runners up spot in the league, victory in the Europa League final will be the icing on the cake for Simeone’s side.
Valencia meanwhile have been a side re-born under the physically demanding regime of Marcelino and finish a full ten points clear in fourth place and go straight into next season’s Champions League.
As happened in England’s Premier League all three of last season’s promoted sides, Levante, Getafe and Girona, all live to fight another day and Getafe, in fact, came very close indeed to securing a place in the Europa League.
Quique Setien won the Seville bragging rights with Betis finish ing five points clear of a Sevilla side that showed themselves capable of being brilliant and awful in equal measure, but still manage to creep into the last Europa League placing despite conceding (58) ten more goals that they actually scored (48).
Girona were odds on to slide straight back into the Segunda, but Pablo Machin has performed miracles to guarantee a second season in the top flight, while Paco Gomez’s Levante has manged a stunning 25 points out of 30 since taking over at the Ciutat de Valencia.
In the same City, Marcelino has also done a wonderful job while Abelardo took Alaves from rock bottom when he took over in December to mid table safety.
Malaga meanwhile, a club that lest we forget were Champions League quarter finalists as recently as 2013 and not so long ago promised so much with talks of huge funds and grandiose plans drifted inexhorably and inevitablity in the lower tier with just 20 points and a full 20 points adrift of fourth bottom side, Leganes; a tragic scenario and an object lesson in how not to run a football club.
With all decided in La Liga, the last weekend matters little. And then we all go again sometime in August (perhaps the 18th) after the small matter of two European Finals and a World Cup.