Phil Ball: Madrid's depth and superior midfield seal deserving La Liga win

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  • Real Madrid celebrate at the famous Plaza Cibeles.

    It’s all over now, baby blue. The saints might not be comin’ through, but Real Madrid have won the Spanish league, for the first time since 2012 under Jose Mourinho. You have to admit, whether you are decked in the colours of Barcelona or not, that Madrid are also worthy winners. Only three points separated them from their great rivals but a widening sea separates them in other aspects.

    The Madrid squad headed back gleefully to Madrid on Sunday night to re-acquaint themselves with the Roman goddess Cibeles (Cybele in English), who had been sitting in her chariot forlorn for four seasons, without so much as a visit and a cold neck to boot. At some time around 2.30 am on Monday, Captain Sergio Ramos (followed by Marcelo) climbed the statue to tie a Real Madrid-Spain combi scarf around her neck, despite the 29 degree night in the capital. He even gave her a little peck on the cheek (I hope she likes a beard).

    It’s Madrid’s 33rd league title (Barcelona have 24), and in two weeks they’ll be hoping to extend this feel-good season even further, when they travel to Cardiff.

    The final-day script had been nicely written and arranged, with all sorts of interesting factors at play. Chief among them was the presence on the Málaga technical bench of Michel, honourable Madrid old boy and victim of two final-curtain defeats at Tenerife in the 1990s, both of which handed Barcelona the title.

    Those games have become mythical in the more tortured annals of Madrid’s history, driving them to avoid repeats at all costs. Such is football – but the papers – particularly the ones published in Catalunya, were nonetheless speculating on how keen Michel would be on preventing his beloved Madrid from winning the title. Michel made all the right noises, but it dripped some extra juice into the cocktail.

    Málaga were comfortably propped up in mid-table, and despite their recent good form, Madrid only needed a draw. Barcelona’s home game with Eibar was Luis Enrique’s last home appearance as coach, so it seemed unlikely they would just turn up and lose.

    Furthermore, Eibar were motivated by the memories of two years ago, almost to the day, when Barcelona’s casual attitude to visitors Deportivo’s relegation plight and their focus on the Xavi homage meant that Deportivo drew and sent Eibar down – as if the little Basque club were of no consequence. It didn’t look good, and even though Eibar survived by dint of Elche’s subsequent financial irregularities, the game is also a significant one in their memory. With Eibar leading 2-0 in the 61 st minute after two excellent goals by Inui, their motivation was clear for all to see.

    Over in Málaga, Madrid were cruising by the same score, after Karim Benzema had extended Cristiano Ronaldo’s first-half early opener. Málaga huffed and puffed, Kaylor Navas once again made some crucial saves, but Madrid’s house never looked in danger of being blown down.

    Isco, perhaps the team’s most influential player in the run-in, returned to his old stomping ground, set up the first goal and was applauded warmly from the field after he was substituted. After so much speculation as to his worth to Madrid, and the possibility of him moving elsewhere, he won the title on his old ground and finally proved that his style can win silverware.

    Gareth Bale took no part, and despite scoring the opener on the first day of the season in Anoeta, has been a peripheral figure, with just 19 league games completed in an injury-plagued season. It’s looking increasingly likely that he will start on the bench in his home town against Juventus, on June 3. Not nice for him, but Isco has earned his place.

    The title is a particular triumph for Zidane, who has now guided the side to four trophies since he took over in January last year. The squad is pretty much the one he inherited from Rafa Benitez, but the style of play and the obvious good feeling that he has generated among the players form a massive contrast to those dark days under the current Newcastle manager.

    And despite the fact that he may attain sainthood if the team wins in Cardiff (a double not achieved since 1958) there were times this season when the doubters were in full cry, accusing the Frenchman of over-tinkering, making poor substitutions and remaining stubbornly committed to the BBC, even when it seemed obvious that others could do a better job. Alvaro Morata has made fewer appearances than Benzema this season but has scored more goals, and the wonderful Asensio might wonder why he was not given more opportunities, but Zidane has the title as proof that his decisions work.

    What have been the main differences between the big two this season? Returning to the coach theme, Zidane is a rather more complex chap than meets the eye, but his calm stubbornness has seemed preferable all campaign to Luis Enrique’s edgy neurosis, treating every question as if it were a veiled attack and flailing at invisible enemies, week in week out.

    He’s done well enough in terms of silverware, but he won’t be missed. Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde – if he is indeed the chosen one – will return some quiet dignity to Barcelona’s bench.

    Another obvious difference has been the depth of the squads. Zidane has been criticised for his policy of rotations – oddly at the same time as taking flak for defaulting too often to the BBC – but he has stuck to his guns and rested players in games that seemed risky arenas in which to do so – but it rarely backfired. When the squad players were called to duty, they invariably responded, a factor that enabled the ‘key’ players to rest and stay strong for the final sprint. Even Danilo had a half-decent season.

    Perhaps the main question mark over the champions has been an over-leaky defence (41 conceded is a lot for title winners), but 106 scored has more than compensated, as has the team’s ability to squeeze through several games by single-goal margins (on ten occasions) and snatch results even on their off-days.

    Barcelona also sneaked results from their off-days, but were patently over-reliant on their marvellous striking trident and also less reliable at the back (37 conceded). Where Casemiro emerged as the solid hub of Madrid’s relentless attacking style, Busquets seemed in decline.

    Madrid’s two full-backs, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were the best in the league and added a myriad of attacking options, but at Barcelona it was difficult to identify a valid right-sided defender and Jordi Alba had a poor season over on the left. Umtiti was the only significant addition to the squad, in terms of quality.

    In summary, you might say that the title was won in midfield, not up front – despite Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s inexhaustible appetites for goals, goals and more goals. The Kroos-Modric-Casemiro blend proved too much for most opposition, for most of the season.

    Over in the Camp Nou, the press dedicated too much negative energy in condemning André Gomes, seemingly forgetting that Ivan Rakitic didn’t have the best of campaigns – deprived as he was of a regular partner and of a coherent plan. With Iniesta’s powers also on the wane and Arda Turan on his way out, you wonder what’s in creative store for the season to come.

    Sevilla did better than expected but failed to consolidate their good start, and their Champions League fourth-place finish was clouded by Jorge Sampaoli’s decision to leave and coach Argentina.

    Celta’s Eduardo Berrizo, another of the Argentine clan, will replace him however, and he should do equally well.

    Atlético Madrid said farewell to their Vicente Calderon stadium on Sunday too, after 51 years of existence. Its rather edgy atmosphere never made it a very welcome place for visitors, but it was a special stadium, stuck out on the riverbank, straddling a motorway. It has seen some colourful characters come and go, and the latest in that particular line, Diego Simeone, has pledged to stay.

    It remains to be seen whether his star man, Antoine Griezmann, pledges the same, but in the final act of the stadium it was fitting that the local hero, freckle-face ‘The Kid’ Torres, should score the opening two goals in the first 12 minutes.

    Their 3-1 defeat of Athletic Bilbao meant that Real Sociedad finished in 6th place, nicking the direct route to the Europa League with their own last-gasp 2-2 draw at Celta. Athletic will now have to hope that Barcelona win the King’s Cup final against Alavés, a result which would permit them to play the Europa League preliminaries as 7th-place finishers. Villarreal finished 5th .

    Another fact worthy of mention this season is the final presence of four Basque teams in the top ten of La Liga. For a region of three million inhabitants (roughly equivalent to the population of Greater Manchester) the achievement is considerable. What’s the secret? It’s probably the great food.

    It’s been another entertaining season, made all the better for going down to the wire, but on a negative note you have to wonder when the quality of the refereeing will begin to perk up. It’s been poor again all campaign, but the wonderfully named Hernández Hernández (so bad they named him twice) surpassed even his own legendary ineptitude by awarding Barcelona two penalties that will have the meme artists in full flow this week.

    Jordi Alba’s wonderful tussle with the grass (he kicked it and then fell over himself) earned him the penalty of the millennium, with Yoel saving wonderfully from Messi. The second, where Ander Capa never even made contact with Neymar, resulted in the defender being sent off. Human error? One hopes so, but until there’s a change at the top, and Angel Villar is finally replaced, this particular problem is unlikely to go away.

    But let’s end on a positive note. It’s been a more balanced and competitive season, and from a Spanish perspective at least, there’s still Cardiff to look forward to. Until then.