The unofficial La Liga awards
Recognizing the best, the worst and the most memorable from a wild season
A season of records. A season of surprises. A season of two footballing superpowers fighting each other to a standstill. The best battle to date between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a farewell to Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho's crowning triumph, plus goodbye to Villarreal and the resurgence of Athletic Bilbao.
The 2011-12 season has been epic and enjoyable; though all the prizes will not be properly distributed until the Copa del Rey final a week from Friday, here is our version of how the alternative prizes should be handed out.
The "And now, the end is Near " Award
In many ways it is sad to be saying goodbye so soon to an innovator, winner and soccer stylist like Guardiola, but there have been some clear, and occasionally startling, visual indications this season that his temperature was reaching the boiling point and a cooling-off period might be appropriate.
For example, when Cesc Fabregas came off against Valencia having missed a glaring chance to score, he made a little joke about how the (crucial) third goal had taken a while to arrive. Guardiola grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, gave him a shove and used industrial language to point out that it was time he and his teammates stopped missing easy chances. The player felt that being en route to the ample final result (5-1) meant that the heat was off while the coach wanted the heat to remain at blowtorch level all season.
When Alexis pulled up injured at home against Sporting Gijon, his manager gave him a coruscating burst of anger -- again, including language we had better not reproduce here -- and even took his hand away from his mouth, where it had begun in an initial attempt to keep the outburst hidden from the watching TV cameras. Suddenly he didn't care about the world hearing his rant.
Increasingly Guardiola was edgy with the media, angry with his players and frustrated that small, important details were going awry.
By the time I saw him sitting on the bench against Real Madrid and Chelsea with his head in his hands as La Liga and the Champions League both slipped away, it was clear that the moment he'd always promised would come (burnout) had arrived. How Barcelona fares without him is not the point. It was time for a decent, intelligent, but seriously intense, man to move on. For his own good.[+] EnlargeDani Pozo/AFP/GettyImagesKarim Benzema's in fine form heading into Euro 2012 -- 21 goals and 7 assists in La Liga this season, with his strike at Osasuna a major highlight.
Goal of the Season: Karim Benzema at Osasuna
There has been such a glut of goals from Messi that perhaps it should be obligatory to pick one of his to celebrate a feat that, to me, seems superhuman. However, Benzema's outrageously audacious strike in Pamplona at the most crucial time of the season needs to be given credit.
It came at a ground at which Madrid had lost two and drawn one of the past three visits and in the middle of a Liga spell that saw Mourinho's team drop six points in draws against Malaga, Villarreal and Valencia. In theory, the visit to Osasuna was a test of fire.
But in reality, the Frenchman's sixth-minute goal, volleyed from an acute angle back across Andres Fernandez into the far top corner from Ronaldo's left wing cross, broke the spirit of the home team and gave Madrid what was a vital push toward the title, in that it could play the subsequent Camp Nou Clasico with a healthy points gap. Chapeau, mon brave!
Saddest sight of the season
There are mere minutes left in what has been an anemic, damaging and often embarrassing season for Villarreal. On its bench there is a group of players bellowing at the opposition, Atletico Madrid's players, as they run to and fro.
What are they shouting? Well, World Cup winner Carlos Marchena and expensive flop winger Javi Camunas are urging Atletico Madrid to stop trying because Malaga, Atleti's rival for the final Champions League position, is winning. The concept, totally alien to the sporting values I was brought up with in Scotland, is that if things are going against you there is no shame in surrendering and, moreover, if you have the chance to do a favor to the other guys on the pitch by giving up, it's a no-brainer.
I've often stated here that Villarreal is admirable because of its achievements, the style with which it tries to play and its youth development system and because the "Yellow Submarine" has been a small dog that barks very loudly. So I'm sad that we will lose Villarreal to the second tier, but sadder still that this is the last image of its current spell in the Primera.
Raul Tamudo's late, crazy, emotional goal for Rayo Vallecano is what ultimately did for Villarreal altogether, but the players' concept that Atletico, coached by the ferociously competitive Diego Simeone, might just stop trying to do the Yellow Submarine a favor (thereby screwing Rayo into the bargain) stinks to high heaven. The fact the pleas fell on deaf ears and Radamel Falcao scored a late winner is pretty much all that those misguided players in yellow deserved.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
• History beckons for Barca
• No time for nostalgia
• Messi's rise to greatness
• Torres should play for Spain
• Real Madrid's title quest
• Madrid's Pepe problem
• Di Maria is odd man out?
• Jokers wild for Spain's national team
• Yellow Submarine on verge of sinking
• Ronaldo's rant, Atletico's despair
• Barca beats Madrid again
• Spain's three kings
• Ibra's book of nonsense
• Spain's balance of power
• Rossi's injury huge blow
• La Liga's ultimate late bloomer
• Messi chasing Barca record
• Laporta's fall from grace
• Barca's off-the-pitch battle
• Real Madrid's game plan
What saddens me most of all is that in an era in which Spain's clubs are in debt to the tune of at least $1 billion and many owe great lumps of cash to the taxman, Villarreal is well-ordered financially, having sold Santi Cazorla to try to help balance the books and thus doesn't owe the Spanish taxman anything. Is relegation really a fair reward for that club, its fans and the board?
Quotes of the season
"He practically arrived at the match from the beach and wearing flip-flops but still scored three in two games against Madrid." --Gerard Pique, on Messi after Barcelona won the tumultuous Spanish Supercup, 5-4.
"If they whistled Zidane then why wouldn't they whistle me?" --Mourinho shows a bit of Zen as the Bernabeu fans jeer him.
"Coaching Madrid has been the most difficult job of my life. But the important thing is not to coach or play with Madrid ... it is to win with Madrid" --Mourinho opens up after winning the title.
"I'm empty." --Guardiola admits the cost of giving FC Barcelona the greatest four years in the club's history.
"I found out that Tito was going to replace me the same day that the club announced I was leaving." --Guardiola finding out that "The King is dead, long live the King" works as ruthlessly at the Camp Nou as it always has with monarchy.
"Even though I don't speak much Spanish yet, I reckon I'm the most entertaining guy in our dressing room. "I like being a sex symbol. "Doesn't everyone?" --Valencia's Adil Rami, a shy and retiring addition to La Liga.
"What's the point of a player having a contract if he doesn't get paid? We have to work hard to solve the problems in Spanish football." --Then-Mallorca coach Michael Laudrup, backing the players' strike.
"I'm going to retire on the pitch, not on the operating table." --Hard man Carles Puyol, prior to his second knee operation in a year. Two days after surgery, he was back in the gym.
"The defeat is the fault of one of my players who knew very well that there would be provocations like that but fell for it. I hand him part responsibility for the defeat and I've no problem in telling him that directly." -- Mourinho, on Khedira's red card in the away defeat to Levante.
"I don't have a remote control to make the players move; Cesc still has to learn that sometimes there are demands which mean that he needs to remain static rather than create anarchy." --Guardiola, on the man he bought to eventually replace Xavi.
"If I'm not optimistic about what lies in front of us, if I don't show my players that I believe that we can win then what's the point? I am the captain of this ship and even if everyone is pessimistic and loses confidence we might complete our voyage successfully but without confidence and optimism the journey will be long, tortuous and we might feel seasick. I intend that we and the fans enjoy this." --Real Betis coach Pepe Mel in October. No crewmembers were lost overboard in keeping the Verdiblancos in the Primera Liga.
"There will be no favored sons in my Spain squads." --Vicente del Bosque, on finally selecting Roberto Soldado, the very striker del Bosque signed at Real Madrid, for national duty.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.
Dead Heat of the Season
For the most unlikely, unpredictable and probably unrepeatable stories of this or any other campaign, it is a tale of top and bottom.
Little Levante may not have culminated its extraordinary season with a Champions League qualification place, but it will feature in the Europa League next season. Over the past three years Valencia's second club has spent just about $320,000 on signings, is working its way out of administration, has the oldest squad in La Liga and, in the remarkable 36-year-old Sergio Ballesteros, possesses the outfield player with the second-most minutes played in the league this season. UEFA action in 2012-13 will add some much needed revenue, but almost as importantly, it will raise the profile of what is now a well-run, happy club. I congratulate it.
And yet, I'm not sure how to separate Levante's uplifting tale from the astonishing events at Zaragoza. Little wonder the fans chant "Manolo Jimenez, que cojones tienes" at the coach, a song that venerates his reproductive equipment based on the remorseless bravery he's shown since taking over on Hogmanay last year.
At one stage, with the fans at war with the board and the stadium less than half full for home games, it not only looked impossible to achieve salvation but seemed like not enough people cared. But after a series of remarkable wins, 31 points in the second half of the season and a fight-back that has made Zaragoza the only team in Spanish history to be 12 points from safety but still avoiding relegation, Jimenez and his team took 45 coaches of fans to the final day win at Getafe.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Manu Fernandez, FileDespite struggling as Sevilla manager, Manolo Jimenez' five months at the helm of Real Zaragoza saw a remarkable turnaround for the ailing La Liga side -- 31 points in the second half of the season helped the club avoid the drop.
The rescue operation was completed, and while there have been some who have questioned how it was achieved, I'm going to remain impressed until anyone proves that this wasn't one of the most remarkable escape acts in recent Spanish soccer history.
Biggest Sob StoryA close-run thing. Either the broken leg that cost David Villa as Barca was busy winning the World Club championship in Japan or the way in which a sumptuous Athletic Club ran out of steam in the Europa League final.
For Villa, not only did it leave his European Championship prospects in jeopardy, but the toll on FC Barcelona was enormous. Such is his character and such are his skills that I'll bet on him to return next season looking better than ever. But how soon he's able to come back will determine the size of the bill to be paid by Spain in Poland and Ukraine this summer. If it is as large as Barca has had to stump up without him, Villa is the sob story of the season.
However, the romantics will vote for Athletic. The Bilbao side, led by Marcelo Bielsa, has given us style, thrills and an outrageous European campaign, but the fact its depth of squad (in world-class terms) isn't enough to cope with so many demands was cruelly exposed in Bucharest. Hats off to Atletico -- Falcao and Diego Simeone in particular -- but we neutrals didn't get to see the soccer bonanza we deserved.
The "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" Award
We live in extraordinary times. Messi and Ronaldo scored nearly 150 goals between them this season (if you total club and country), a total that is almost unbelievable.
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The difference in their trophy haul is that while the team around Messi misfired at the crucial moment in which the two great trophies were up for grabs, Madrid (as it hunted down its first La Liga title in four years) did not.
However when Barca fired on all cylinders, Messi did what he always does -- performed on the big stage. Spanish Supercup, European Supercup, World Club Cup final -- goals and assists as Barcelona romped to all three trophies.
Ronaldo has never produced a more complete season -- 46 goals in the league and 12 assists. He has been Real Madrid's leader, scoring crucial goals in the defining victories at Atletico Madrid and Barcelona when the title was to be decided.
So respect to him and congratulations on a well-deserved La Liga victory. But Messi remains, by a distance the most complete and most dangerous footballer in the world. Some think that to win the Ballon D'Or, it's essential to win either the league title or the Champions League. I predict that the voters in this year's award will prove that to be false, and Messi, quite rightly, will win again.
As for next season -- bring it on. The sooner the better.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.
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