Phil Ball: La Liga set for thrilling finale

In his latest column, Phil Ball looks ahead to a gripping La Liga finale as Real Madrid remain in pole position with two matches left to play.

Phil Ball
by Phil Ball
15th May 2017

article:15th May 2017

Will Ronaldo fire Real to the La Liga title?
Will Ronaldo fire Real to the La Liga title?

Call me old fashioned, but the final two games of the Spanish season are always the best – not because the games are of better quality but rather because most of them take place at the same time. It changes the weekend completely, concentrates the focus of the matches into a short time-span, and makes the eventual digestion of all the games so much more pleasurable. It reminds me of the times when football was a more personal experience, before the television octopus took the reins with eight hands and decided to shape the experience for us.

Nevertheless, the 37th and penultimate programme wasn’t played entirely on the same day. The first two games, deemed to be of lesser consequence because their results would not influence any upper or lower qualification/title/relegation issues, were played on Saturday, played in the corner of the playground and of no apparent interest.


Like two prisoners on death row arguing about who should go first, one of the games, Osasuna v Granada, had a dark and desperate quality to it (I was almost tempted to drive down to Pamplona and watch), with both sides already relegated but with the bottom league place to be avoided. Osasuna won 2-1 and moved off the bottom for the first time since October. It almost felt like a triumph for them. In the other game, Valencia (under new coach Marcelino) continued their improvement with a 1-0 win at Espanyol.

The rest of the games, all deemed significant in some way, were played at 20:00 on Sunday night. I went to the Real Sociedad v Malaga game in Anoeta, the soft lights of the balmy late spring evening and the bumper crowd all lending atmosphere to a wonderful game (2-2) in which the hosts let slip a good chance of securing a Europa League place, despite dominating the game and playing some wonderful stuff. But there’s the point of the simultaneous kick-offs.

Coming out of the game, the crowd buzzing after Sociedad’s late equaliser, you could hear nothing but animated chatter regarding the other results around Spain, just coming into people’s smartphones. Athletic Bilbao had been pegged back late on by Leganés, and Villarreal had been held surprisingly by Deportivo, lifting the spirits of the homeward surging multitude even further. It was how I remember football as a child, walking home down Grimsby Road with my father, passing people who clutched little radios to their ears, listening in on the BBC Final Score at 17:00. Who had done what? What did it mean for us?

What did it mean for Leganés and Deportivo too? It was so much more interesting to see these two sides celebrate their salvation on a Sunday night, rather than seeing it happen on a Friday or on a Monday, in the match that nobody wanted to see anyway. The problem with the Friday-to-Monday staggered programme of the current media mindset is that it becomes a sort of diluted dispersal, a succession of individual games whose particular significance appeals almost entirely to the fans of those sides and to nobody else. The Friday game on the TV is a kind of annoying distraction as you’re trying to talk to your mates in some bar about the working week just gone, and the Monday night fixture is just an irrelevance, almost apologising for its own presence.

But Sunday night was great because I could zip home on the motorbike and then take in all the news at once, digesting it all in a more personalised way. What was the Real Madrid score? How did Barcelona get on? Well, they both won 4-1, Madrid eventually scuffing aside an injury-hit Sevilla and resting some players in the meantime and Barcelona winning 4-1 at Las Palmas, courtesy of a Neymar hat-trick.

Sevilla nevertheless qualify for 4th place due to Villarreal’s inability to see off Deportivo (La Liga’s new escapologists) and Atlético secured 3rd position with their 1-1 draw at Betis – also under new (interim) management.

Neymar.

In form: Neymar.

Everything is now set up rather wonderfully for a grandstand finish. Real Madrid play their game in hand on Wednesday night at Celta, and are probably wishing that their opponents had beaten Manchester United last week and qualified for the Europa final, thus providing them with a distraction. Now their only remaining motivation is to make a decent show of things in their last two games, but especially on Wednesday night. If Real Madrid win – a side who have just established a European record by scoring in 62 consecutive games (Bayern were the previous holders) – they will only need a point from their final game at Málaga to take the title.

Talking of Málaga, a side much improved since Michel took over the reins, will be no pushovers. They had won four consecutive games before the draw in Anoeta, and although they were outplayed by the hosts on Sunday night they were still able to hang on grimly and threaten on the break, with fast counters and quick, accurate passing. For a side looking previously on the decline, their recent form had been impressive. Real Madrid should beware, but first they have to travel to Vigo.

Barcelona’s final game, at home to the wonderful Eibar, who at the very least have secured a top-ten place, nevertheless looks like three points for the hosts. This means that whatever happens on Wednesday in Vigo, next Sunday night at 20:00 the title will be played out, ensuring a massive TV audience.

Other destinies were settled this weekend, however. Sporting won 1-0 at Eibar but were gutted to discover that Leganés had drawn at nearby Bilbao. At home to Betis next week, they could have continued to dream, but now they are down. Real Sociedad, Athletic and Villarreal will now all compete for the coveted fifth and sixth places next weekend, with Athletic looking the least likely to succeed, given their away fixture in the Calderon. Atlético, despite having secured 3rd place, are unlikely to want to say goodbye to their old stadium by losing the game, and especially to Athletic – not their favourite team. Sparks should fly. Villarreal have a tricky one away to Valencia and Real Sociedad wrap things up by visiting Celta, four days after Real Madrid have trodden the Vigo turf.

If Barcelona defeat the also excellent Alavés – what a season they’ve had, then the seventh placed side will qualify for the Europa League, but only for its preliminary rounds. It represents qualification, but only provisionally. On top of that it cuts the summer holidays short for the players because the games are usually very early in August, sometimes late July. If you don’t get through, it’s a long season ahead. Hence the final games for these three sides will be highly watchable.

In the second Division, the clash of the two titans, champions Levante and promotees elect Girona fought out a 2-1 win for the former, but Girona still look on course to join the elite for the first time in their 87-year history. Justice would thus be done, having narrowly missed out on promotion three times in the last four years. With a 9,000 capacity ground, they are almost in the Eibar category, and have certainly done little of note in their history, but with four games left they are seven points ahead of third-placed Getafe.

Six other sides can still aspire for a play-off place, with tiny Huesca tucked up in sixth place. If they were to go up, their 5,700 stadium would rob Eibar of their unique smallness, but it’s a long shot.

We’re almost there, as Michael Jackson once sang. It’s been a great season, made all the more interesting by going down to the wire. And to paraphrase Morrissey, it’s a pity that everyday can’t be like this past Sunday, but anyway – one final deep breath and the title will be decided.


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