The final day of the La Liga season is habitually dramatic, as several clubs often head into it with plenty to play for. This year’s finale was marked by two teams headed in very different directions, as Malaga secured fourth place in the League at the same time Villarreal’s relegation was confirmed.
Only, this time last season Villarreal sat where Malaga now sit. That is, in the Champions League qualification positions behind only Valencia, Barcelona and Real Madrid, anticipating a substantial financial windfall from UEFA’s primary competition.
However, a key difference between the Yellow Submarine’s transfer work last summer in preparation for the competition and the Anchovies’ expected preparation work this summer, is that Villarreal had to sell where Malaga will now be buying. President Fernando Roig’s ceramics industry had been badly hit by the Spanish recession and as such his decade long ability to keep star players happy at the small Valencian Community town club by supplying the big bucks had waned.
And so last summer when a €20m offer for Santi Cazorla arrived, it was happily accepted. The Yellow Submarine deciding it more important to keep a hold of their other prized asset, Giuseppe Rossi, and re-invest the money from that and the Champions League qualification into other areas of the field.
In came Cristian Zapata and Jonathan de Guzman for a combined €15m, but in the perfect storm that was Villarreal’s season, the latter only made 11 starts whilst Zapata was often found wanting. Alongside this, Rossi suffered not one, but two horrific cruciate knee ligament injuries, the second of which will rule him out well into next season. And a club that had been built on stability with three Coaches in the previous seven years went through three in three months.
It didn’t help either that there final appointment, Miguel Angel Lotina, had been there and done it when it came to a relegation scrap, not in a ‘keeping-teams-up’ manner but rather having already taken Deportivo La Coruna, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo down.
Time after time in the final weeks of the season, Villarreal were within touching distance of the points they needed for survival, but Lotina’s tactical and philosophical negativity saw his insistence for throwing on defensive players in the final stages get in their way. They led against Racing Santander, Sociedad and Osasuna only to concede late equalisers, they lost 1-0 twice in the city of Valencia to injury time goals and, fittingly, were relegated by Radamel Falcao’s header with two minutes remaining on the final day of the season.
Perhaps just as fittingly, to ensure that Atleti’s win at El Madrigal turned out to be rather hollow for the capital side, former Villarreal man Cazorla supplied his fifth assist of the season for Malaga to help Los Boquerones past Sporting Gijon and safely into fourth ahead of Atletico.
However, where it was an example of the creativity the diminutive attacker has provided his current club that his previous one lacked, it was not just for his ability to set up teammates that was missed at Villarreal – his tally of nine goals from midfield also equalled Marco Ruben’s return as Villarreal’s top goalscorer in 2011-12.
It is hard to overestimate the difference the 27-year-old playmaker made to a Malaga side that finished just three points above the relegation zone last season, whilst it is also fair to assume he will only get better as the parts around him are upgraded. Injuries to the likes of Joaquin and Jeremy Toulalan often meant Cazorla’s position was changed from starting behind the front two, to playing deeper in midfield, or even cutting in from the right side of midfield. Wherever based though, he was still consistently effective and indeed was the only outfield player in the whole League to start all 38 games.
That consistency has rightfully been rewarded with a place in Vicente del Bosque’s squad for the upcoming European Championships where he could again be a key player. Indeed, even amongst the stellar cast that makes up the Spanish midfield, Cazorla managed five appearances in his country’s run to the European crown in 2008 and, he only missed out on the victorious World Cup squad two years later through injury.
Whilst Cazorla is considered one of Spanish football’s quieter men, as he prepares to go to Poland and Ukraine, both Malaga and Villarreal will attest to his ability to make the loudest contribution when it counts.