Last part of my team-by-team round up of the Spanish season. This time, it's the relegated and almost-relegated.
Levante are a curious club. They've been in and out of the Primera a fair few times in the last ten years, and at times looked like going straight back down this season along with fellow new boys 'Nastic. Unlike the Catalans, however, they could more or less defend, and that enabled them to scrape the results they needed in the latter half of the campaign to reach the magical 40 point survival barrier.
If they don't improve their squad, however, they will be fighting relegation again next season. Compared to clubs in similar positions, they simply don't have enough quality to stand out above the rest.
What I said about Depor in my last post more or less applies to Betis, although they weren't doing as well as Depor. Still, a fourth place finish in 04-05 isn't bad. Out of all the non-relegated clubs, I think they've had the worst season. I say that because Betis aren't a small club, and they spend a fair amount on players. Yet they almost got relegated amidst all sorts of chaos both on and off the pitch. That glorious victory against Chelsea in the Champions League (05-06) must seem rather far away now.
Speaking of which, it was their European commitments, first in the Champions League and then in the UEFA Cup, as well as a rash of injuries which were blamed for their struggles in that season. Betis didn't have European commitments this season, but their unfortunate luck with injuries did continue and they were not able to replace several big names who were sold off.
All that rather pales when set next to their various internal troubles, though. Club owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera makes all the decisions behind the scenes, which wouldn't be a problem except that his decision-making prowess leaves much to be desired. Then there was the mess in the Seville derby which led to the closing of Betis' stadium for 3 matches. In the end, they did get to the magical land of 40 points after a few close calls, but it wasn't pretty. And it involved the club sacking coach Luis Fernandez after they were thumped 0-5 by Osasuna at home. All well and good, except that was the second to last round. Luckily they won their last game.
All in all, a season Betis supporters would probably rather forget.
Personally, I've been rooting for Athletic to stay up all through their struggles this season. After all, they have a history to uphold as one of the only three clubs to have never been relegated from the Primera, alongside Barca and Real, all the while sticking to their Basque-only recruiting policy (although it must be noted that their definition of 'Basque' has shifted throughout the years). Besides, as various coaches and players pointed out during the season, it would be strange to go a season without visiting San Mames, that cathedral of Spanish football with its unique atmosphere. So it's nice to see them make it on the last matchday.
Warm and fuzzy feelings aside, though, the fans must be getting alarmed at the downward slide of the club, largely due to the difficulty of signing players. While this may be remedied somewhat since the other Basque powerhouse have been relegated, which may encourage any Basque players to sign on with Athletic instead, the trend is increasingly towards them losing promising players to teams who can promise more money and glory. I don't presume to know about the complexities of the situation, but the winners of the club board elections have some tough thinking to do. Starting with picking a new coach, incidentally, since Mane resigned right after guiding the team to safety for this season.
The following clubs were relegated:
Celta are kind of like Osasuna in their one-season-wonder status, except their feat of qualifying for the UEFA Cup was arguably even more impressive since they did it in their first season back in the top flight. However, European qualification turned out to be a double-edged sword as it often does with teams lacking depth, and their league campaign was seriously affected by having to play in the UEFA Cup. (In which, by the way, they did alright, going out in the round of 16 to Werder Bremen.) Not the first time a club has been relegated because they couldn't handle playing in that many competitions.
However, the twist on the Celta story is that they decided to bring in a new coach towards the end of the season to salvage things. Not uncommon in itself, but somehow, some genius in the Celta club management decided that Hristo Stoichkov was the man to save them from the drop.
Personal confession time - I have an irrational love for Stoichkov, despite the fact that he is evidently just a little bit mad. But then, geniuses often are. And you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who is more devoted to the blaugrana colours than the former Barca player. So yes, I like him a lot. But I wouldn't hire him to save my team from relegation. Stoichkov is apparently going to continue as coach of Celta next season, and I wish him luck in bringing them up at the first opportunity.
Real Sociedad were 2 points off winning the title in 02-03. Now they're in the second division, and there will be no Basque derby in the top flight next season, which is rather sad, although one could argue that the Basque derby being turned into a relegation derby in recent seasons is equally sad for a region with undoubted footballing pedigree. Many predicted mid-season that one of Athletic and la Real were going down, and perhaps given their horrible run to start the season (their first league win was on the 17th of December) Real Sociedad already had too much ground to make up by then.
Once upon a time, la Real had a lot of good players who all had a great season, which enabled them to achieve that second place finish. All those players either left (Xabi Alonso being the most notable) or are past their best (most notably Darko Kovacevic, who has been plagued by injury as well). Their squad simply wasn't good enough to get them the 40 points they needed this time. The defence wasn't great, but there were worse in the Primera. What they really lacked was goals.
Hopefully la Real will come straight back up again. They are a club with a proud tradition and it will be strange not seeing them on the fixture list for next season. A lot needs to change if they are to compete again, though.
Gimnastic de Tarragona
'Nastic's points total reflects the hard time they had in the Primera. Nobody can say they didn't try, and there were a couple of memorable victories over the likes of Sevilla and Zaragoza, but they weren't really expected to survive given the resources of the club and the limitations of the squad.
Actually, while I'm on the topic, I had been informed by an Espanyol supporter that the 'Nastic fans disliked Barca almost as much as they did, but it appears that they're actually very confused. They don't like Barca, that's true, but judging by the cheering that greeted the news of Mallorca's goal in the Bernabeu in the last round during the Nastic-Barca game, they don't like Real much either. Hating both of the big two: kind of refreshing, really.
That's it. It's been a tremendous season. As a Barca supporter, I obviously prefer the events of last season, but I suspect the neutrals will have delighted in the exciting unpredictability this time around.
Next up: a Barca news round-up, a (probably) overwrought post about Riquelme, Boca and Argentina and my end of season awards.