The final day of the Liga season provided high drama at the foot of the table as Sporting and Villarreal slipped through the trap door and joined Racing in the long night of Segunda División. Sporting had been hotly tipped to be the second team relegated, not least because its fate was not in its own hands. Victory at Málaga was the base requirement for survival and when that was not forthcoming, results elsewhere became irrelevant.
Villarreal was less fancied to go down but a chain of events combined to condemn the Yellow Submarine to Spain’s euphemistically titled “silver league” for the first time since the 1999-00 season. On that occasion, Villarreal immediately won promotion back to Primera en route to great feats at the European level. At home to Atlético Madrid, Miguel Ángel Lotina’s side had only to avoid defeat to stay up and until the 88th minute it seemed it had done just that. Atlético was playing at half-steam, aware that Málaga was leading Sporting in La Rosaleda and therefore had the final Champions League place in its grasp. However, Radamel Falcao clearly thought it was worth bagging one just in case and stunned El Madrigal.
The historic tally of 100 points racked up by Real Madrid must be a watershed for La Liga and spur the rest of the clubs and the authorities on to seek ways to boost competitiveness in “the greatest league in the world.”
Reaching three figures is a towering achievement, which the champion had every right to celebrate in style. But the white whirl of plastic sheeting, ticker tape and fireworks in the Bernabéu on Sunday night should also wound the pride of the other 19 teams — and not just Barcelona — once the final line-up for next season is confirmed. The 4-1 romp against Mallorca was Madrid’s 32nd win. Its only two defeats came before Christmas at the hands of upstart Levante and then-champion Barcelona. Only third- and fourth-placed Valencia and Málaga, and now-relegated Racing and Villarreal stole two points apiece from the royal steamroller by tying one of their two duels, meaning that everyone lost once to Real and 13 teams did so twice.
But then again, José Mourinho’s Madrid is a mean machine, and you have to listen when the Portuguese martinet suggests that his players have reached their peak. “Next season it will be impossible to improve in terms of numbers, but it also seems pretty difficult to improve our standard of play.” Real roasted the middle orders of La Primera week in week out, scoring 121 league goals in the process — another record. But the Spanish champion could not get past Bayern Munich to add European luster to the season, proof that Mourinho’s men are human. Will domestic rivals take up that challenge?
Meanwhile, in Madrid, the news filtered through to Rayo’s support and the game was afoot. If the suburban side could sneak a goal against Granada, it would escape the chop. With seconds remaining Raúl Tamudo, the veteran scorer of some of La Liga’s most decisive goals, popped up to head home and the stadium erupted in rapture. Two things about the goal will not please Villarreal: first, Tamudo was offside, and later Rayo midfielder Michu admitted in a radio interview that the home side had asked Granada’s players to look the other way for a moment — the Andalusians were already safe as a result of events in Vila-real.
Zaragoza, too, escaped a return to Segunda but far from leaving its charge until the final day, the Aragonese club has been beating all-comers for weeks to cling on to Primera status. In mid-March Zaragoza was rock bottom and nine points from safety. Manolo Jiménez’s team has since won nine, lost twice — to Barça and Sevilla — and tied one. As promised, Jiménez and his players were to pay homage Monday to Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza’s patron saint, for their salvation.
Levante had spent the first half of the season repeating the mantra that survival was its only goal, but during the latter stages even the most pragmatic of people at the tiny coastal club must have started to wonder. Only twice since week six has Levante been out of the European places — most recently last week — and its 3-0 win over Athletic sealed continental competition for the first time in its 103-year history. A little over two years ago Levante almost disappeared entirely due to financial woes and still has the smallest budget in Primera.
Villarreal will now have to keep its wallet in its pants as it adjusts from being a Champions League team to a Segunda outfit. Players like Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar are too luxurious to retain but old warhorses Carlos Marchena and Marcos Senna may stick around to help their side in its attempt to bounce back at the first time of asking.