Continuing with my round-up of the Spanish season, this post covers the teams who finished 5th to 9th in the table.
62 points; UEFA Cup
I spent the entire first half of the season becoming increasingly saddened by going-ons at Villarreal, which culminated in the departure of Juan Roman Riquelme. Happily, the parting turned out well for both parties, although both Roman and Villarreal took a while to get going in the second half of the season. Like many other clubs in La Liga, the Submarines had been hit hard by long term injuries to Nihat, Robert Pires and Gonzalo Rodriguez. The mid-season signing of Chilean wonderkid Matias Fernandez eventually began to pay off and the aftementioned injury victims began to return, which made an immediate difference. Villarreal hold the longest winning streak of this season, which just happened to be their last 8 games, started by - ironically enough - their home defeat of Barca.
So it all ended happily, for once, and it will be great to see Villarreal back in Europe next season. Unfortunately, poor Gonzalo Rodriguez has sustained the exact same injury that kept him out of most of this season yet again, which will keep him out of a great deal of the next campaign. It's a good thing they signed Roberto Ayala from Valencia on a free transfer, then, isn't it? They still have to deal with the thorny question of what to do with the returning Riquelme, since Boca can't afford to buy him and management won't have him back. Watch this space on that one.
60 points; UEFA Cup
It's hard for me to dislike Zaragoza, since they're a bit like the Inter of Spain - Argentine central. The Argentine contingent certainly had a hand in Zaragoza's achievements this season. Captain and central defender Gabi Milito has been excellent (although he's almost certainly leaving the club during the transfer window), increasingly brilliant striker Diego Milito managed to score 23 goals, just 2 less than van Nistelrooy with a far less galactic midfield behind him.
Speaking of which, they may not be galactic, but Pablo Aimar and Andres D'Alessandro are damn fine players. Neither are what you'd call consistent, but they've both had pretty good seasons and played some fine stuff.
Then there are the other fine South American players like Diogo and Ewerthon, although the latter has been sidelined for Barca youth system product Sergio Garcia this season. Speaking of former Barca players, young Gerard Pique - from the same year as Leo Messi and Cesc Fabregas - has had a fine season too.
An UEFA Cup finish is certainly not bad at all, and I'd say they've broadly accomplished their aims for this season. There were times during the season when a Champions League place looked possible for them, but the 4 at the top were always going to be too strong to be overcome.
60 points; entered Intertoto Cup
Oh dear. I'd rather that my comments about Atletico aren't read as bashing; the last thing I want to do is jump on the let's-make-fun-of-Atletico bandwagon. But seriously. As Ray Hudson likes to say, Atletico are a big club, with a budget to match and many long-suffering supporters. They managed to bring in a great coach in the form of the refreshingly honest Javier Aguirre and spent a lot of money assembling an impressive-looking squad. Then disaster strikes in the form of long term injuries to crucial players. That's plain old bad luck, although as I've pointed out above, quite a few Spanish clubs were similarly afflicted.
Still, they started alright, and there were moments in which they dared dream of returning to the Champions League, but in the end they were simply far too inconsistent, especially at home, where they dropped far too many points to teams like Levante and Real Sociedad. I can't imagine how frustrated the rojiblanco supporters must be - they've just been pipped to the last UEFA Cup spot by Zaragoza on head-to-head results (wait, maybe I can...). To put it into perspective, they're only 6 points off Valencia, who occupy the last Champions League place, so it's not really that bad. But that doesn't really help, does it? The Intertoto it is, then.
The good news: when not busy insulting the squad, Atletico's club president has managed to get Aguirre to sign a new deal. He's really a decent coach, so hopefully it's onwards to better things for Atletico.
Recreativo de Huelva
It may sound strange to be saying this about a team who finished up well outside the UEFA Cup place that looked so attainable to them for large stretches of the league campaign, but Recre are really the surprise package of the season. No one expected the new boys to stay up this season, especially not while playing nice football and challenging for an European place.
Shame about Europe, but it was pretty inevitable late in the season given their lack of depth compared to the teams above them with deeper pockets. The oldest club in Spain worked miracles on a shoestring budget and should be congratulated.
52 points; UEFA Cup (Copa del Rey finalist)
Yet another remarkable season from the club that has made their name through defying the odds on a shoestring budget. (They should be the model of every promoted club going through second-season pains, like Recre above most likely will.) After a few seasons of the same, I do wonder if the club's supporters were getting sick of their tendency to fall off the European spots towards the end of the season, but this time they have done tremendously well and qualified for Europe anyway through their place in the Copa del Rey final.
Speaking of which, their campaign in that competition has been incredibly impressive, and should they win the trophy they will be very much deserving. The massive efforts to knock out Valencia and then Barca come to mind.
Much of the credit for their progress has to go to the ever-astute coach Bernard Schuster. He's done very well to put Madrid's 'third' club (speaking in budget terms only) on the map (and now into Europe ahead of Madrid's 'second' club). He says he's going to become coach of Real Madrid. Well, if so, good luck to him. He's a bit of a character, that man, in a league where thankfully most of the coaches don't bother with the verbal warfare, but it's somehow rather endearing coming from the former Barca and Real legend.
(Update: oh boy. If people assumed that Getafe president Angel Torres would be fine with the apparent tapping up of his coach by Real just because he happens to be a card-carrying Madridista, well, they assumed wrong.)
Finally, congratulations to 'keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri (Argentina's no.1) for winning the Zamora trophy (goalkeeper who conceded the least). What a great start to his career in La Liga, and I trust he will be able to play on for a few seasons yet despite his age.
Next post: the also-rans.