Yet another incredible football season has reached its conclusion. The beautiful game has not failed to disappoint, providing the fans with some jaw dropping – as well as heartbreaking – moments over the last nine months.
We have witnessed some brilliant one-off individual displays and a few consistent performers. We’ve had breakout players, impressing at a young age and veterans proving that age is just a number.
As part of our end-of-the-season awards for Europe’s top-five leagues, we’re honouring the Player of the Year and Breakthrough Player of the Year (stars aged 23 and under who made significant strides in 2018/19).
Here, we look at the winners from La Liga.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Lionel Messi, Barcelona, 31 years old
This is surely the award with least possible disagreements. Yet again, Messi led Barcelona to a comfortable title win, with three games to spare. What can be written about the Argentine that has not already been scripted by footballers, managers, supporters and pundits already? He was at his destructive best when in Barcelona’s frontline and displayed creative delicacy from the heart of midfield when needed as well. His combination with Jordi Alba has continued to provide the team some much-needed ammunition that Philippe Coutinho failed to provide. Messi has scored the highest number of goals, provided most assists, recorded most key-passes per 90 minutes, created most big chances and registered the highest xA (Expected assists) in the league. Like always, Messi has been the saviour for Barcelona whenever it looked like things were not going their way. His Champions League campaign did not end like how he would have hoped it would, but in a domestic campaign, no player in Europe has come close this season.
Best performance: Hat-trick v Sevilla
Barcelona trailed twice against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizuan in what was a crucial game, given the dynamics of both teams. Messi carried Barcelona to a 4-2 win with a wonderful hat-trick which included a breathaking volley, a ‘weak’-foot finish and a delicate chip.
What next for Messi?
In La Liga, there is nothing left for Messi to achieve. He has made a mockery of the competition, wrapping up eight of the last 11 league titles. He has done so as a striker, winger, false nine and most recently a No10. Of course, the Argentine will be hungry to defend the title, but next season he will be focusing on an elusive fifth Champions League triumph.
Honourable mentions: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)
BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Junior Firpo, Real Betis, 22 years old
Junior has been a consistent performer amid the chaos of Quique Setien’s Real Betis side this season. The 22-year-old boasts everything you would want in a modern-day full-back – defensive attributes, ability to transition very quickly and hit on the counter, footballing intelligence, a desire to both overlap and underlap, good reading of the game and versatility. At 1.84 metres, Junior also holds a significant advantage over his opponents when it comes to winning aerial duels. Injuries have hindered what could have been a flawless season for the left-back. The fact that Betis have suffered heavily in the second half of the season, with Junior sidelined due to injury underlies his importance to the team. The Dominican has featured at left-back, left wing-back and left-wing this season, impressing in all roles that he has undertaken. The future is definitely bright for this well-rounded youngster and it’s no wonder Real Madrid are strongly linked.
Best performance: A goal+assist against Barcelona
Setien managed a 4-3 humbling of Barcelona at the Camp Nou and Junior stole the show with a goal, an assist and constant runs on the flank terrorising Barcelona’s backline.
What next for Firpo?
He was wanted by Real Madrid, but that was before Sergio Reguilon impressed and replaced Marcelo in the starting line-up. However, Junior is surely an upgrade over Reguilon and given how his style of play is similar to that of Marcelo, it’s likely that Los Blancos will go ahead with the move. At Madrid, Junior will be given a chance to develop his crossing, which is an important aspect of Zinedine Zidane’s style. He could be a great replacement for a declining Marcelo, especially with their identical skill-sets. It’s only onward and upward for this young talent.
Honourable mentions: Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)
Ernesto Valverde insisted offering to resign as Barcelona coach had not crossed his mind after seeing his side bounce back from their Champions League nightmare with victory over Getafe on Sunday.
Barca were knocked out of Europe in sensational fashion on Tuesday night when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit to win their semi-final 4-3 on aggregate.
That chastening defeat came after Barca were dumped out of last season’s Champions League in similar fashion by Roma, and questions have been raised about the long-term futures of Valverde and several senior players.
The coach is determined to fight on though, and when asked if he had considered stepping down he told reporters: “No, I haven’t thought about it.”
Valverde was speaking after Barca beat Getafe 2-0 at the Nou Camp in their final home match of the season.
Arturo Vidal’s first-half strike and a late own goal settled the contest as champions Barca moved 11 points clear at the top of LaLiga and regained some confidence ahead of the Copa del Rey final later this month.
Valverde said, as reported by the Spanish media: “It was really important for us to win today, to take a step forward.
“The game was a tricky one because they (Getafe) were playing for a place in the Champions League.
“We were OK at the start but as the game went on we got better and better and I think we did well in the second half.”
Philippe Coutinho suffered a hamstring injury in the victory and is expected to be sidelined for around 10 days.
That would rule the Brazil international, whose future at Barca is also the subject of speculation, out of the club’s last La Liga match at Eibar next weekend but could see him fit for the Copa del Rey final against Valencia.
Provided by Press Association Sport
The La Liga title race may have been wrapped up two weeks ago, but heading into the penultimate weekend of the season there’s still plenty of intrigue around the league, with the relegation and European spots still to be decided.
Champions-elect Barcelona will be the centre of attention after their embarrassing loss to Liverpool in midweek sent them crashing out of the Champions League, while bitter rivals Real Madrid are never far from the headlines and have plenty of issues to resolve as the season comes to a close.
A different Madrid side is chasing a dream heading into this weekend – take a look at our talking points ahead of Sunday’s fixtures.
BARCELONA AT A CROSSROADS AFTER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE EXIT
In the wake of Barcelona’s disastrous Champions League exit, all eyes have turned to Ernesto Valverde. Two straight dominant league titles is impressive, but failure in Europe, and especially the near-identical way in which it has happened in two straight seasons – blowing three-goal first-leg leads in humiliating fashion away from home – has plenty clamouring for his sacking.
The board is reportedly not as dead set on getting rid of Valverde, largely due to a lack of alternatives. In the meantime, it’s hard to see what Valverde can do to strengthen his position. He’s in a no-win situation – poor performances against Getafe this weekend and Eibar to close the season will hurt him, but wins won’t do much to help.
And what of the players? Nobody covered themselves in glory on Tuesday but the biggest question mark is Philippe Coutinho. Is there anything the club-record signing can do to save his Barcelona career?
Ernesto Valverde's managerial record for Barcelona:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 10, 2019
• 116 games
• 80 wins
• 25 draws
• 11 defeats
• 274 goals scored
• 94 goals conceded
• 2 LaLiga
• 1 Copa del Rey
• 1 Supercopa de España
Back-to-back Champions league knockouts after holding a three goal lead. pic.twitter.com/baMGmnUp9s
REAL MADRID LOOK TO THE FUTURE
If you’re approaching a crossroads, better to do it as potential double-winners for the second year running. Unlike their rivals, Real Madrid don’t have that luxury.
Instead, Zinedine Zidane is set to oversee a rebuild after Madrid’s first trophy-less season in four years. With the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba, and Neymar all potential arrivals, that means plenty of departures as well.
Gareth Bale is the name at the top of everyone’s minds, and there’s been no further clarity about his future under Zidane. The next two weeks will be Bale in the shop window.
One player who might be saved from a cull is Isco. The latest reports suggest Zidane does not want the Spaniard to leave, just months after an exit seemed inevitable once he was marginalised by Santiago Solari. If he can repay the returning manager’s faith, starting with Sunday at Real Sociedad, he’ll likely get to stay.
Good morning! Here's our front cover today: Zidane wants Isco to stay and sees him as a key figure in his new project that begins next season... pic.twitter.com/XrlAL9rCwq— AS English (@English_AS) May 11, 2019
CAN GETAFE GET THEIR MIRACLE?
About the rest of the league: Celta Vigo, Villarreal, Levante, Valladolid, and Girona are locked in a battle to stave off relegation, and two of those teams will have a say in the top-four race as well. Valladolid host Valencia next week, when Villarreal host Getafe, who are chasing a miracle.
The Madrid side have an average attendance of less than 10,000, and a total wage bill of €40million. Yet they’re the front-runners for the final Champions League spot.
This weekend they face Barcelona. They’re currently three points ahead of Valencia, who have to recover from their Europa League disappointment against Arsenal as they face Alaves, and Sevilla, who have a difficult away game against Atletico Madrid.
Valencia would win head-to-head tiebreakers against both their rivals, but Getafe would have the advantage over Sevilla. Can they keep the dream alive for one more week?
GETAFE:— La Liga Lowdown 🧡🇪🇸⚽️ (@LaLigaLowdown) May 11, 2019
Current position: 4th
Highest possible finish: 4th
Lowest possible finish: 6th
Fixtures: Barcelona ✈, Villarreal 🏡
Champions League qualification is in their hands, but only if they take at least four points. One defeat takes it out of their hands.#LLL