Never mind the bullocks – it’s The Balls.
Omicron arrived on a free transfer, the crowds came back, masks were breathed into and sarnies smuggled whilst Real Madrid, and not their noisy neighbours Atlético, won La Liga with an ease that was not on the cards in pre-season.
Strange and unexpected things also took place – Vinicius suddenly decided to be a world-class player, Luis Súarez finally looked just a little too tubby and Xavi Hernandez returned from the desert to claw back his beloved Messi-less Barça from the brink of implosion to the runners-up spot. Several teams with Euro-competition squads were rubbish, for example Valencia and Celta, with Villarreal the unlikely heroes of the Champions League but failing to make an impact in the league.
Funny things also happened. Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Footy Federation – (‘Rubi’ to his footballing friends) – is still in a job after dodgy conversations with his mate Piqué (‘Geri’ to his executive friends) were leaked to the press. Like Britain’s Boris Johnson, he saw out the storm with a bit of defensive bluster, but Johnson has better hair. ‘Geri and Rubi’ is rumoured to be the name of a new ice-cream company next season, with its main factory in Andorra.
A related item was the post-season press conference where the head of the Spanish Refereeing Committee, Luis Medina Cantalejo, concluded that it had been an ‘excellent’ season’ in terms of the quality of the officials’ overall performances, which was interesting coming from an ex-referee who was himself famously incompetent. It’s difficult to know which season (or planet) he was alluding to, but whatever he was smoking pre-conference, we’d all love to buy some. Perhaps they could include the flavour in the Geri-Rubi ice-cream, since the three of them all seem to share roughly the same interests. ‘Helados Geri-Rubi, con sabor Cantalejo’. Ok…that’s enough.
Another interesting aspect of the season was the do-not-go-gently-into-that-good night behaviour of various veterans, written off as part-time bit players for the campaign only to emerge as the determining factors. Modric was majestic, as was Benzema, whose journey from domestic moggy to man-eating wild cat was finally consummated. Marcelo made a few panto appearances and Kroos was ok, but elsewhere David Silva (when he played) was imperial for Real Sociedad, and Busquets confounded those who had predicted that he would meekly fade away, not forgetting the ancient Dani Alves, of course. Morales was wonderful for Levante (despite their relegation) and Oscar Trejo at Rayo….but atop this particular podium, of course, was Betis’ Joaquin, the forty year-old national treasure who is yet to announce his retirement. One hopes he will continue playing, since his inevitable transfer to the commentary box may be problematic. Joaquin will make Micah Richards look solemn, with the added drawback that no-one actually understands his unfathomable jokes.
Whatever, all in all it wasn’t a bad season, given the departures of Ramos and Messi, with the loss of soundbites and spectacle respectively. The top seven sides were the same, albeit in shuffled positions, and Real Madrid finished with 86 points, the same as Atlético last season, but 13 ahead of Barcelona, who should be praised, I suppose, for their second-half catch-up act and the shrewd signings that enabled it.
Sevilla finished 4th again, but with seven points fewer than last season and a nagging feeling that they haven’t quite found the right guy in Lopetegui. And talking of coaches, the season saw the first talk of Cholo Simeone walking the tightrope, the long-awaited departure of grumpy-bags Koeman (what is it about Dutch managers?), a season of renewed butchery from Bordalás at Valencia and the return of ‘El Vasco’ Aguirre (he’s actually Mexican) to save Mallorca, and he did – just. Oh, and Ancelotti did okay I suppose.
Whatever – here are the annual Balls, arranged in their usual categories:
La Liga’s 5 most predictable outcomes
- The player with the most yellow cards (Omar Alderete) was from…… Valencia, surprise surprise. Mind you, Getafe didn’t quite forget the Bordalás shuffle, and had three players on the top-five yellow-carded podium. Valencia and Getafe occupied positions 1 and 2 for the most carded teams. You have to admire consistency.
- Mbappé staying at PSG, and playing Real Madrid off against them, in order to fatten his wage-packet further. Who can blame him? Now Real Madrid have gone into offended mode, because they’ve suddenly noticed that PSG are richer than they are. Funny one that, and a slightly twisted view of their own domestic history. Oh well, where would we be without a lack of self-awareness?
- Iñaki Williams played a part in every league game of the season, making it six seasons now without missing a league game. This has won him much admiration, although observers less impressed say that it’s a result of Athletic’s youth policy that stubbornly fails to produce decent strikers to compete with him. Discuss.
- Gareth Bale would play more games for Wales than Real Madrid, and would suffer an attack of backache when the post-title celebrations were in full-flow. He’s just a shy boy. He doesn’t like parties.
- Joaquin would repeat his legendary bollock-naked shot with the cup trophy, 14 years on. Not for the faint-hearted.
La Liga’s five biggest surprises
- The relegation of Granada. After a decent season in 20-21, they did struggle but even at the death they had the easiest fixture list with which to save themselves. If they now lose important squad members, they might not find it so easy to bounce back this time.
- Vinicius. An extraordinary transformation from national joke to top performer, almost overnight. His relationship with Benzema became uncannily psychic, and in many ways Vini was the motor of the side, always a threat, always running with intent – a weird and unlikely metamorphosis from random road-runner to wolf-pack leader.
- Atlético’s anodyne defence of their title. They fought well in Europe but with Suarez fading and Oblak suddenly mortal, nobody really stepped up. Not quite sure what they’ll need next season. A new coach?
- Luis Enrique continues to ignore Iago Aspas.
- Real Madrid making it to the Champs League Final – which is not a statement of disrespect – but every cliff-path seemed to be leading to a massive drop onto the rocks. That they always found that blade of grass to cling onto was remarkable. Watch out Liverpool….you’re forewarned.
Seven-and-a-half interesting facts for the season
- Real Sociedad scored 16 goals at home all season, and yet they won 10 and drew 6 of the 19 games. Work that one out. Never in the field of human conflict have so many points been secured for so few goals scored.
- Real Madrid committed the least fouls (394) of any side all season. Either a lesson to us all, or dodgy refs. Discuss.
- Real Sociedad only conceded 9 goals at home, which means that if you add to the statistic for Number 1, their supporters had a fairly tedious season. Hey – they played good football though. I was there…
- Barcelona women won the league scoring 159 and conceding 11. They got so little practice in the domestic stroll that they went and blew the Champs League final. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, although I’m not sure what it is.
- Toni Kroos is apparently an excellent darts player. I said that last year but it’s still true.
- Vinicius ran with the ball for 10,165 metres this season. Nobody ran more.
- Oblak’s shot-stopping % dropped from 80% last season to 58% this. Maybe it wasn’t Simeone’s fault after all.
Five new talents to have emerged
- Gavi. Last year it was Pedri, so this year it’s Gavi. They both end in ‘i’ in case you hadn’t noticed.
- Martin Zubimendi. Also ends in ‘i’. There’s a pattern here. He was in the list last season but I’m going to include him again, just so that Luis Enrique, a regular reader of this column (of course) will take note. Or is he seriously going to take Koke instead of this guy? Demonstrate on the streets, now! Oh – and I know his dad (Zubimendi’s, not Koke’s).
- Camavinga. I liked him. Why didn’t he play more?
- Yunus Musah: Hard as nails, and does everything well. Was impossible to dislike him, despite the regime he was playing under at Valencia, although paradoxically, it might have been the making of him.
- Yeremi Pino: Partly in there for his name (Jeremy Pine-Tree) but he’s yet another starlet to emerge from the Villarreal set-up. From Las Palmas originally, but 40 games this season at 19 years of age and a scary talent.
The best goal of the campaign
Everybody always gets cross about this one, but whatever….I can never remember half of them. Benzema seemed to score dozens of great ones, I liked Griezmann’s away at Valencia, Vinicius at home to Sevilla was great too, and technically-speaking it’s hard to better Oliver Torres’ volley against Levante…but I guess we have to go for Atlético’s Correa’s against Villarreal. Parejo makes a mess of a square ball in the centre-circle, Correa intercepts, looks up and sees Rulli off his line (as usual). But the shot is extraordinary. We’ll give it to him. Any other contenders? Answers on a postcard.
Top fashion tips
- Antoine Griezmann: Recently employed by Mango as their face of summer ‘22, Griezmann has changed his look from retro-pornstar to a cross between an ooh-la-la French chef and the keyboard player from Sparks (Ron Mael). Cool.
- Asier Villalibre (Athletic): Villalibre looks like some frighteningly knowledgeable computer-hack hipster, who leaves training to spend the rest of the day in Bilbao’s Starbucks branch looking serious but casual in front of his Macbook Air. His beard is rumoured to harbour a nest of sparrows – Basque-bred ones of course.
- Ed Camavinga: Nice lad, but that stuff at the back of his head makes it look as though there’s a firework display emerging therefrom. If he wants to get noticed, he could just score more goals.
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