The Race for the La Liga Crown
If there were a match on which Barcelona would stumble in their path to a second consecutive La Liga title, Villarreal would stand in their way.
All involved with FC Barcelona said the right statements after Inter Milan eliminated the Catalans from the UEFA Champions League. Barça president Joan Laporta wanted to focus on the league to give the Culés some joy. Barcelona entrenador Pep Guardiola mentioned how his players needed to get up from the floor in the three days prior to their league match against Villarreal. Various players, including Gerard Piqué, Pedro Rodríguez, and Sergio Busquets, mentioned how their whole attention is now on securing La Liga for the second consecutive year. These are all nice statements, but after a gutting semifinal loss with a chance of competing the final at the Santiago Bernabéu, no one would be surprised if they delivered these quotes with a shade of hollowness.
Barcelona left their European disappointments behind with a 1-4 drubbing of Villarreal at El Madrigal, a fortress for the Yellow Submarine all season long.
If Villarreal would not be the Barça stopper, Sevilla must be the answer.
The Andalusian club became one of the few teams to defeat Barcelona this season when they went to the Camp Nou and won 1-2 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey Round of 16. Sevilla had something for which to play, as they stood only one point ahead of Mallorca for the final Champions League berth. Frédéric Kanouté and Luís Fabiano, whom Sevilla relies on so heavily, started together up front, an all-too-rare occurrence this season.
Barcelona handled them with ease for the first hour, building a 0-3 lead and benefiting from a man-advantage after Abdoulay Konko received his second yellow card for pulling down Bojan Krkic as he sped past him. Even the Catalans can fall into a lull with such a significant ascendancy, and who else but Kanouté and Fabiano to score two quick goals in succession to make the final twenty minutes a nervy experience for the Blaugrana. They refocused, and Barcelona saw out the rest of the match with relative ease.
With one match remaining, Barcelona needs to win at home against Real Valladolid to assure themselves of their twentieth Spanish title.
Real Madrid is akin to that little Chihuahua that incessantly nips at the heels and tries to protect its territory. Los Blancos have riposted every Barcelona tally with a win of their own, although the methods in which Real Madrid continue to notch their victories provide more of those “heart in mouth” moments for their fans.
Late goals against Almería, Real Zaragoza, and Osasuna within the past month kept the title race alive, and facing an obstinate Athletic Bilbao team that defeated them at the San Mamés in the first half of the campaign, Real could not afford to put on a mediocre performance.
When referee César Muñiz Fernández sent off Fernando Amorebieta in the 20th minute for what he perceived to be an intentional handball in the penalty area, he gave Real Madrid the gift they needed to relieve some of the stress and nerves that could clearly be seen by those in the Santiago Bernabéu. Cristiano Ronaldo coolly sent the penalty kick into the back of the net, and Los Merengues looked to be on their way to securing the three points early in the match.
Similar to Barcelona, Real went on cruise control for the rest of the half when Athletic went down to ten men, and Fran Yeste burned them with an impressive solo effort, as he took on four defenders who inexplicably did not close him down at any point while he made his lateral run across the top of the box.
1-1 with seventeen minutes remaining and with Barcelona winning at the Camp Nou, twenty minutes stood from Barcelona retaining La Liga for another season. As Real are wont to do, they scored late, and Athletic Bilbao simply could not maintain their energy with one less man for 70+ minutes. The 5-1 final flattered the men from the Spanish capital, but they did their job, and they have extended the title race to the final matchday for the first time since the 2006/07 season, when both Barcelona and Real Madrid were tied on 73 points heading into the final day. Barcelona won at Gimnàstic de Tarragona 1-5, but Real Madrid against Mallorca 3-1, and Real held the head-to-head tiebreaker over Barça, so Real Madrid won their 30th crown.
The Race for the Final Champions League Place
Mallorca started Jornada 37 one point behind Sevilla for that Champions League qualifying spot, and on paper, Los Barralets had the easier match, as they traveled to A Coruña and faced a weary and beaten down Deportivo La Coruña squad who wanted the campaign to end as quickly as possible, whereas Sevilla hosted league leaders FC Barcelona who has only one trophy for which to play.
A typical Galician night with a steady rain pouring on El Riazor, the Depor fans hardly showed up because of both the weather and their team’s atrocious string of results in the second half of the season. The first sixty-five minutes of the match was not much better. The crowd started to rise when they saw that Filipe Luís Kasmirski donned his substitute’s bib and started to warm up on the sidelines.
One of the indelible images and scenes of the 2009/10 La Liga season was Filipe Luís’ foot hanging nearly ninety degrees after his ankle was crushed underneath the weight of a diving Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. Constant rehabilitation and sheer perseverance and will brought Filipe Luís to this moment, and less than four months after that horrific incident, Filipe Luís miraculously played for Depor as a substitute in the 66th minute.
Of the supporters who did show up at El Riazor, they created as much clamor and noise as if the stadium were full when Filipe Luís ran onto the pitch. To complete this Hollywood story, Filipe Luís contributed to the only goal of the match when his run down the left flank brought a couple a defenders with him. His pass into the center led to Juan Carlos Valerón’s pinpoint through ball to Riki in the box, and Riki placed his shot past Dudu Aouate at the left near post.
Although Mallorca lost 1-0 at Depor, Sevilla could not come back from a three-goal deficit against Barcelona, falling short 2-3 despite playing with ten men for the final half-hour. Sevilla’s lead remains at one point, and with Mallorca losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with Sevilla, Mallorca has to win against Espanyol and hope that Almería can prevent Sevilla from winning in order for the debt-ridden team from the Balearic Islands to complete their unexpected journey with a shot at the Champions League group stage.
The Race for the Potential Final Europa League Spot
Depending on the result of the Copa del Rey between Sevilla and Atlético Madrid on May 19, seventh place could earn a berth into the UEFA Europa League, but Villarreal and Getafe cannot rely on that, so they continue to fight for sixth place and a certain spot into the third qualifying round of the 2010/11 Europa League.
Usually an entertaining and enthralling encounter, the Valencian derby between Villarreal and Valencia had none of those characteristics. Valencia ensured themselves of third place and direct qualification into the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League group stage last weekend, so their motivation was near nil. Unai Emery, whose contract was extended this past week, sent out the B squad against Villarreal, and Villarreal took advantage of their near neighbors with a professional performance that hardly extended any of their resources.
Villarreal manager Juan Carlos Garrido gave Javi Venta his final appearance for Villarreal at El Madrigal, and the fans greeted Venta with the reverence and respect he deserved for being involved with the team from its La Liga infancy eleven years ago to its esteemed status as a European force in 2010. Robert Pirès, also likely to be gone in the summer, received his final farewell, and the latter stages of the match became more of a testimonial as Valencia obliged to the situation.
Getafe, however, also won on Saturday against Málaga, and while Getafe and Villarreal are equal on points, Getafe holds the head-to-head edge on Villarreal, so Getafe remains in sixth place with one round remaining.
The Race to Avoid Relegation
Whereas the other three races in La Liga each involve only two teams, five teams have a chance by 9:00 PM CEST next Sunday to fall to the Segunda División for next season. All five teams were involved in matches that included late drama this weekend, and as the results stood at the end of Saturday night, the relegation picture is more muddled than ever.
Sprightly and plucky Xerez continues to linger around, and after their thrilling 3-2 victory over Real Zaragoza, they have a legitimate chance to stay in La Liga for the first time all season. Their destiny is not in their own hands, but surprisingly, Xerez holds many of the tiebreakers against the other four teams in the relegation scrap, and if they somehow extend their journey in La Liga for another season after they have occupied the foot of the table since Round 12 and mired in the relegation zone since Round 2, that would be one of the top three stories of La Liga this season.
Until Málaga’s loss to Getafe on Saturday, they had been unbeaten in their previous five matches. An impressive statement on its own until delved deeper, and it is realized that all five of those matches were drawn. Málaga deserved to win none of those matches, and save for their battling performance against Mallorca at the ONO Estadi, Málaga failed to progress forward when their other relegation rivals earned victories.
Unfortunately for Málaga, La Liga is one of the few leagues in Europe to employ head-to-head results as the first tiebreaker as opposed to goal difference, or else they would stand at 16th in the table, but hosting Real Madrid on the final day, Málaga has little chance of achieving a result, and they wrote their own writings on the wall with substandard play in the past five rounds.
Racing de Santander and Real Valladolid arguably played the most significant match of the weekend, and it was a typical Javier Clemente match: slug it out and see what happens. A disputed penalty and player unrest in the final fifteen minutes led to overtime work for referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, but at the end of the ninety minutes, Valladolid stole the three points that were absolutely necessary, as their final match is on the road against Barcelona.
Javier Clemente is on the brink of another successful late-season revival, and he has become the quick-fix doctor for Spanish teams whose season teeters between La Liga salvation and relegation ignominy. No one will ever confuse Clemente’s football philosophies with Pep Guardiola or Arséne Wenger, but a team that usually wants his services does not care about style; they just want to stay in the top flight.
With Nino’s equalizer in the third minute of stoppage time to poach a vital point against Almería, Tenerife is on thirty-six points, tied with Valladolid, Racing, and Málaga and Xerez just three points behind. The numerous permutations with these five teams will sort itself out next Sunday, and Round 38 of the 2009/10 season shapes up to be one of the most unpredictable final days for the whole table in recent memory. Who says La Liga is boring?