A Europa League final and a 13 point improvement are no mean feat for a club €80 million debt and without Ivan Rakitic, Alberto Moreno and Fabio Fazio. Unai Emery’s outstanding coaching and bargain recruits (Carlos Bacca’s 34 league goals over two seasons have cost just over €200.000 each) ended up a point short of Europe’s Elite.
Villareal’s 3-2 defeat to Barcelona in early March was not supposed to herald a crash. Yet the Yellow Submarine went from making the Europa League Second Round and being a point short of fifth (Sevilla), to an 11 game winless streak, including elimination to (guess who) Sevilla and ending the season 17 points short of Champions League football.
Despite only racking up 19 points in the first slate, Ernesto Valverde stuck to the 4-2-3-1 formation, earning a 1-0 win over Real Madrid and 36 points for only three second-half losses, not to mention a berth in the Copa del Rey final. Downsides: losing Iker Muniain to an ACL tear, falling to Torino in Europe and relying on Aritz Aduriz’s 18-goal tally. No-one else made it past five in Liga play.
Fans at the Balaidos can hang their hats on a few things, namely Celta’s giant-killing of Barcelona (away) and Atletico Madrid, as well an an exciting attacking trio of Nolito, Joaquin Larrivey and Fabian Orellana, who scored 29 goals between them. Nolito himself ended up as a Top 5 assistman with 13. Los célticos also added 13 points in second half play, second only to Real Madrid.
Close to Europe until March, Málaga simply ran out of steam, winning just one of their last eleven La Liga games and conceding a horrifying seven goals in the last ten minutes of play down the stretch. Though the defence shut Barcelona out in a shocking 1-0 win, it’s ageing (Sergio Sanchez is the only starter not in his 30s) and didn’t contribute a single goal at the other end.
Los Periquitos improved on 14th place by losing only three of their last 14 games. Deceptively respectable against Top 10 opponents in the second half of the season, Espanyol were not as ruthless in the Copa, where they were despatched by Athletic. Ended the season in hot water following racist chants in the Derby, a game they haven’t won since 2009.
It’s no surprise Ska-P chose to dedicate a song to Rayo, who somehow earned a monstrous 23 points on the road despite being outscored 42 to 20. Ruthlessly efficient against their peers, the Bees were anything but against their betters, whether it was losing 6-1 to Celta Vigo or drawing 4-4 at the Mestalla in the Copa, having lost 3-0 there only a few days previously.
The Basque outfit achieved the unusual accolade of somehow beating Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid with three different managers. Yet this pales in comparison to the work David Moyes has done, restoring cohesion, discipline and grittiness to a side languishing near the bottom of the table. At 1.37 points a game under the Scot, the Txuriurdin would have been just shy of Athletic’s record had he begun the season with them.
Who do you call when you’ve spent most of the winter in the bottom three, when your president has resigned, when your club is 40 million in debt and unable to sign players in the transfer window? Fran Escriba, that’s who! And to think Los Illicitanos were safe with three games to go. Jonathas’ 14 goals were key, as no-one else bagged more than five.
What’s that? Fran Escriba isn’t available? Lucas Alcaraz will do! Though it wasn’t pretty, the former Granada lifesaver orchestrated late wins in six-pointers against Eibar, Getafe, Almeria and Cordoba to keep La Liga’s third-worst defence up. David Barral and Victor Casadesus combined for a crucial 19 goals.
The Azulones were always just about good enough to float above the relegation zone, never returning to the bottom three after matchday five. This is hardly a backhanded compliment, especially when both Cosmin Contra and Quique Sanchez Flores jilted the club midseason, leaving it to sputter its way to the finish with six defeats in nine games.
Deportivo la Coruna
Cash-strapped, short on talent, constantly barracked by their fans and fresh off another turn on the managerial merry-go-round, the once-proud Depor looked to be in deep trouble a month ago. With only one win in ten and likely needing points from their visit to Barcelona to stay up, the Galicians (under former glory days winger Victor Sanchez) were lucky their opponents eased off after going 2-0 up, allowing for the most unlikely of comebacks.
Talk about a timely managerial change! Six points from safety with four games to go, Granada somehow pulled off three wins and a draw to Atleti to stay up. Jose Ramon Sandoval didn’t do it all himself, however, as Youssef El-Arabi grabbed key goals against Getafe, Cordoba and Real Sociedad to guarantee a sixth-straight season in La Liga, all without ever topping 15th place.
Someone should snap up the movie rights right away. I mean, the plot writes itself: the fans crowdfunding 1.7 million to guarantee promotion, a wild bunch of loanees and spare parts (appropriately sponsored by a scrap metal dealer) beating parent club Real Sociedad on opening day, racking up 26 points and 8th place in an impressive first half of the season, the catastrophic downfall… All that’s missing is the hollywood ending, as the Basque outfit’s 3-0 win over Cordoba was moot once news came through that Deportivo had drawn at the Camp Nou.
Though a draw wouldn’t have been enough, Valencia’s winner on the last day of the season against La Union was a fitting metaphor, the through ball squeezing past Sebastian Dubarbier’s desperate lunge to find Paco Alcacer. A valiant performance against Los Che wasn’t enough to ensure survival, nor indeed to compensate for Almeria’s many weaknesses, especially against set pieces.
Having come up in the most dramatic of fashions, los Califas seemed to be acquitting themselves decently by early January, in fourteenth place and with Miroslav Djukic at the helm. From that point onwards, however… things went Pete Tong. No wins (not one!) in the second half saw Djukic get the sack, and provoked Florin Andone’s x-rated rant: “I’m awful. I can’t even play a f—ing pass, and the team’s the same. I’m sick of everything.”