BY NUMBERS: Luis Suarez's incredible season for Barcelona

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Luis Suarez scored 40 goals in 35 La Liga games this season.

Not only was Luis Suarez the top scorer in La Liga this season, but he also overtook Ronaldo's record of 48 goals in a season for Barcelona.

The 29-year-old has become the third player to score 40+ goals in a La Liga season, following Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

"It is a privilege when you think about what Ronaldo means to Barcelona," the Uruguayan said. "I am trying to enjoy playing for the best team in the world.

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Phil Ball: Suarez overshadows Ronaldo's equally prolific season, Sporting Gijon survive relegation

Phil Ball 16/05/2016
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Comparisons can be odious, but they can be interesting too. Last season’s curtain-downer saw Barcelona placidly celebrating their title at home to Deportivo, more focused on Xavi’s farewell than on the result itself, allowing Deportivo to stage a comeback, draw 2-2 and send Eibar down – although eventually it was Elche who took the rap for financial irregularities.  One season on, with Deportivo and Eibar safe (and Elche two points shy of the play-offs in Segunda ‘A’), the Galicians had a chance to return the ‘favour’ (I use inverted commas with discretion) by spoiling Real Madrid’s day and beating them at the Riazor, thus helping Barcelona clinch a sixth league title from the last eight seasons, down at Granada.

In these circumstances, true colours emerge. Deportivo remained discreet, for obvious reason, but capitulated fairly meekly 0-2 to Madrid, for whom Cristiano Ronaldo scored both goals before coming off at half-time, and Granada, who had been making noises all week about helping Real Madrid to the title (the noises emanating from three of their players with Real Madrid pasts) also capitulated 0-3 to the leaders, with a hat-trick from Luis Suárez – who else? Granada played well at times and did look to be trying, but their fire-power was simply non-existent, and as we know, Barcelona’s isn’t. 112 goals in 38 games, and 40 of them from Suárez, speak for themselves. Did they deserve to win the title? Well of course.  It’s rare that a title winner doesn’t.

The difference this season has been Suárez, with his more focused aggression, his link-up play and his speed of thought. He’s even managed not to bite anyone.  And it’s not just the statistics – he’s the best striker on the planet at the moment and his overall effectiveness has overshadowed CR7’s own equally prolific season – the Portuguese man ‘o war once again scoring over 50 goals (in all competitions) for the sixth successive season.

So, despite Suárez’ fifteen goals in Barcelona’s last five games, lifting his team from their temporary three-game slough of despond to win their last five games (in which they scored 24 and conceded none) the only possible thing to say at the end of the season  is that it hasn’t all been about goals. Only three points separated the top three sides in the end, and Atlético only managed to register 63 goals. Had they not lost surprisingly to Levante last week they would have finished the season with an equal points haul to Barcelona. The difference has simply been Barcelona’s impressive ability to pick themselves up and win their last five games, given the pressure on them and despite the comfy-looking opposition. It’s probably no more profound than that. They kept their nerve.

It’s been a strange season, an unlikely candidate for a photo-finish. Back at the end of February, when Atlético won the Madrid derby, they congratulated themselves on staying within eight points of Barcelona. Real Madrid were twelve points off the Catalans, and looking distinctly unhappy. No-one could have predicted what was to happen, and Real Madrid, to their credit, have set a record in becoming the first La Liga team in history to win their last twelve consecutive games. It hasn’t won them the title but it’s made them a lot happier, and the season could yet turn out rosy for them, if they beat their neighbours again on May 28 in Milan. Barcelona meanwhile, can add further weight to the shelves of their trophy cupboard by beating Sevilla next Sunday in the Vicente Calderón.

Sevilla have mirrored the strange quality of this season’s campaign, intermittent in the league and finishing a poor seventh, eight points behind an over-achieving Celta side who secured the second Europa League place behind Athletic Bilbao.  In cup competitions, however, they have once again excelled, reaching their third consecutive Europa League final (to be played against Liverpool) and second Copa del Rey final in six seasons.  The intensity of their play seems to suit knock-out tournaments, but does not translate to their league programme – and they finish as the only La Liga side not to win an away game all season.

Levante.

Levante.

The photo-finish also applied to the relegation scene, with only Levante down and three sides battling to avoid the drop in an agonising last act. Only one of the three could escape, with the hypothetical ‘if’ variables before the game almost meaninglessly complex. Basically, Sporting de Gijon kept it simple and beat a rather uninterested Villarreal 2-0 at home to send both Getafe and Rayo Vallecano down.

Few will lament the absence of Levante and Getafe from the elite, but the same cannot be said for Rayo. They won their final game against relegated Levante but it wasn’t enough, last week’s defeat at Real Sociedad finally condemning them to their fate. You fear for them.  The last time they went down from the top flight they flopped alarmingly and dropped into Segunda B, where they remained for four seasons, until 2008.  They’ve managed five seasons in the top flight this time, their best-ever run, and you just hope that the financial implications of their relegation won’t hit them too hard.

This week they have been the focus of an investigation from La Liga’s authorities into whether they threw the game last week at Real Sociedad – an allegation strongly denied and one that only arose due to irregularities on betting sites. It seems hard to believe, and if it were found to be true, you’d probably want to dedicate your time to following something else – international tiddledywinks or something. Institutions like Rayo make you feel that the game is still worthwhile, still worth following. Was Robin Hood a double agent? The historical evidence so far suggests that he was ok.

This column said at the beginning of the season that Sporting would stay up, but it’s been something of a struggle. The defensive strength of their promotion campaign was not reflected in their 62 goals conceded, and the mere 40 scored suggest that they’ll need to invest in that area next season. The day after Barcelona’s triumph, Luis Enrique posed for the cameras wearing a Sporting shirt and announced that the weekend had been a decent one – Barcelona winning the title and Sporting, the team where he started as a player in 1989, staying up.

According to Rayo’s indignant president, the fact that Villarreal’s coach Marcelino hails from Sporting – well, from Gijón – meant it was inevitable that Villarreal would make little effort to win the game. Believe what you will, but as they say, if you don’t want to go down in Spain, make sure you arrive at the last game mathematically safe. If not, the dizzying cultural, political and historical variables all combine in a lethal mix to send three sides down.  It is always ‘investigated’, but no conclusions are ever drawn. That’s the way it is. So get those 41 points as quickly as you can.  You know it makes sense.

The final day of the season also means that certain veterans of the cause accept their medals, pin them to their chest and walk into the sunset. Juan Carlos Valerón, after 590 games and 46 caps for Spain has finally hung up his boots, although he didn’t figure in Las Palmas’ final game at Malaga. Born and bred in Las Palmas, he made his name at Deportivo after making his debut in 1995 for his home team.  At one time considered Spain’s finest midfielder, injuries kept him from being one of the country’s all-time greats.  Nevertheless, he kept things going up to the age of 40, and is a very nice guy.

So is Carlos Gurpegui, who put an end to his career with Athletic Bilbao during Saturday’s home win over Sevilla, at the age of 35. He’ll be slightly annoyed to end on 399 appearances, a total which would have been considerably more had he not been banned for two seasons over a doping scandal (he always maintained his innocence), but again – a very nice guy.  Manuel Pablo also seems to have retired from Deportivo’s ranks at the age of 40, after a career which would surely have yielded more than the paltry 13 appearances for Spain had he not suffered a serious career-threatening  injury back in in 2001.

It’s been a great season again – the season of Suárez perhaps.  Now La Liga celebrates its clear monopoly on European football by staging a Madrid derby in the Champions League final and a possible ‘double’ if Sevilla can beat Liverpool.  Then there’s the small matter of the Euro 2016, and a possible Spanish hat-trick.  As they say, bring ‘em  on.

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Pique: Confidence from past titles saw Barcelona to glory

Andy West 16/05/2016
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Celebrations: Barcelona title winners.

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique believes the confidence his club have developed during their era of success this century was a key factor in their latest title triumph.

The Catalan club claimed their sixth La Liga trophy in the space of eight seasons by beating 3-0 at Granada on Saturday, ensuring they finished one point clear of eternal rivals Real Madrid.

Although the victory was straightforward enough, Barca had left themselves with no margin for error after enduring a shocking run of form at the start of April, losing three consecutive league games to reopen a title race which had previously looked decidedly one-sided.

But Pique feels the way his team responded to their spring collapse, which also saw them exit the Champions League at the hands of Atletico Madrid, shows how far the club have progressed ever since Johan Cruyff arrived at the Nou Camp as manager in 1988.

At that point, Barca had failed to win the league for nearly 15 years, and had never been crowned European champions. But the Dutch legend succeeded in taking the ‘Dream Team’ of Romario, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman to four consecutive La Liga titles as well as a maiden European Cup triumph in 1992.

And lifelong Barca fan Pique, who joined the club during his childhood, believes the self-belief generated by Cruyff, and later continued by Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, was a fundamental factor in this season’s regeneration.

“I’ve got the feeling that 25 years ago we wouldn’t have won this title,” he said. “We have changed the pessimism that previously surrounded the club and now we have are a winning team. We had a blip and we had to win this league twice, but we have learned how to show our faces in adversity.”

Pique is one of five members of the squad who have experienced all six titles since 2008, alongside Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets. That quintet will now turn their attentions to seeking only the sixth league and cup double in the club’s history, with Sunday night’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla providing an opportunity for more silverware to finish the season.

But first, they are taking time to savour their latest La Liga triumph and last night the players were saluted by thousands of fans as they staged an open-top bus tour around the city.

Pique saw no problem in celebrating the league title when they still have another final to play, promising: “There’s a long time between this Sunday and next Sunday. I’m very happy about winning the league. Winning six out of eight is something we’ve never done before, and we should enjoy the moment.”

And despite setting very high standards with last season’s treble, Pique rejected the notion that his team need to win next week’s Copa del Rey final before their season can be judged a success.

“We don’t need anything,” he said. “This generation of players has already won everything. If we win the cup as well, even better. Sevilla will be a difficult opponent, but I believe the consistency we have shown is magnificent.”

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