London – Luka Modric went to lift the trophy but there was nothing in his hands, just a look on his face that said it all. Beside him, Gareth Bale was giggling. Real Madrid won the league, shouting, embracing and leaping around the pitch at the Rosaleda where they had just defeated Málaga on the final day, but there was something missing. “What do you mean, no trophy?” the Croatian asked Madrid’s press officer. “They’ll hand it out at the start of next season,” came the reply. “So now we celebrate here, we go back to the dressing room, and that’s it.” That’s it?! Modric gave him a look; baffled, Bale did too. And off they ran to join the rest.
They had no idea. How could they? It happens every May, but this was the first time in five years that Madrid had won the league, only the second in eight years – a wait that was too long, which is why they had made it a public priority from the start, and when it finally came the sensation was that something had shifted in Spain; a fortnight later, that feeling deepened. First, rivals Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, Luis Enrique departing with just the one trophy and leaving Ernesto Valverde to step into his place, a big task ahead. In Cardiff, Madrid won again, becoming the first team to retain the Champions League.
It seems daft to suggest that this is the start of something for a team that had just won their third European Cup in four years – an end in itself, a run arguably unmatched since the 1970s – but that was how it felt, and it was the league title, perhaps the real measure of any team, that did it. Even at the club whose identity was built in Europe, the home front seemed to matter most in 2016-17. Put the two titles together and it was historic. Eight times Madrid had won the European Cup since 1958, but not once had it come with domestic success. Now, it did; now, they genuinely felt like the best team in Spain and beyond. The European Super Cup and Club World Cup were theirs too.
By the end of the campaign there was little argument, but it hadn’t always been like that. This was a curious season that often defied easy analysis. In the autumn, Zinedine Zidane had been asked if his team was in “crisis” and it wasn’t such a silly question. “No,” he had replied, “but we can’t carry on like this.” They hadn’t been beaten, and they wouldn’t be for months either, but while they went 40 games without defeat Madrid didn’t always convince. There was always something about them, though, an ability to find a way through.
Gerard Piqué saw something suspicious in it, insisting “we know now how this works” and later talking about how “strings” are pulled from the directors’ box at the Bernabéu. Ultimately, no team could match the variety Madrid had, nor the strength in depth. Atlético’s Filipe Luís said it best: “They have a really good squad: they adapt to every single game. They can build from the back, they can play long ball, they have good counterattacks, they have good set pieces, so it is really hard to play against them.”
Eventually, they had control too. Modric and Toni Kroos, aided by Isco, had not been at the forefront all the way through the year, but by the spring they certainly were. So, of course, was Cristiano Ronaldo – suddenly there in the decisive weeks, ending this season fitter, more important and just better than before.
“We’re not always going to win late in games,” Zidane had warned and he was right. Although they lost points late too, Madrid clinched points with goals in the final 10 minutes in a quarter of their matches, Sergio Ramos playing comic book hero with rare regularity. Yet as they entered the final weeks those late goals were replaced by early ones, a sense of assuredness previously absent.
Those final three matches in seven days were supposed to be hard but Sevilla, Celta and Málaga were all defeated. Ten goals, Madrid scored – then they got four against Juventus. They had scored in every game this season, via every route and almost every outfield player – only Fábio Coentrão didn’t score. This title was all of theirs, Zidane taking rotation to new levels. Twenty players went over 1,000 league minutes and it became normal to see eight or nine changes at a time. “It’s harder to beat Madrid’s B team than their A team,” Deportivo manager Pepe Mel said. Their squad was so strong there wasn’t even a place on the bench for James Rodríguez when they got to Cardiff.
“They deserve it,” Andrés Iniesta conceded, but Barcelona also knew they were complicit in handing over the league title. For all the brilliance of the front three, and a record 116 goals scored, they never rid themselves of that feeling of vulnerability. They won at Madrid, Atlético, Athletic, Valencia and Sevilla, but Alavés, Celta, Deportivo and Málaga defeated them. Even when they were winning, it didn’t feel quite right, so reliant were they on Lionel Messi. At times, the midfield that once defined them just wasn’t there. When they drew at Real Sociedad in November, they were overrun and grateful for the point. That was part of the portrait of their year, painfully revealed in Paris and Turin. “It will be hard to win the league like this,” Piqué said and so it proved.
Below them, Sevilla momentarily looked like they might compete for the league, their candidacy presented when they became the first team to defeat Madrid, but Leicester did them a lot of damage and they fell away, Samir Nasri disappearing having previously made a case to be the best player in Spain. As for Atlético, when they were held at Leganés in week two, Antoine Griezmann said they’d be “fighting relegation”. He was wrong of course, and they overtook Sevilla, but they didn’t fight for the title. Atlético did, though, fight for the Champions League, where they were knocked out by their city rivals for the fourth year in a row, the last European night at the Vicente Calderón a so very atlético way to bid farewell, singing on through the storm, glorious defeat visited upon them once more. They’ll miss heading down the aptly-named Melancholics’ Way to the place with a motorway under the stand, crumbling foundations shaken by the noise. Small wonder there were tears on the final day. Appropriately, there were also two goals from Fernando Torres.
Up at their new stadium, right out on the other side of the city, miles from their heartland and named after the club’s Chinese shareholding, Atlético will be back in the Champions League next season with Sevilla, while three others will grace the Europa League. Fran Escribá was in swimming trunks and on his way down to get an ice cream when Villarreal called him; the same time this year, he’ll be preparing for Europe. They’ll be joined by Real Sociedad, who became one of the country’s most attractive teams under Eusébio, and Athletic Bilbao in a competition out of Spanish hands for the first time in four years.
It was close, mind you. Alavés had to lose the Copa del Rey final for Athletic to get there. It was the second final in their entire history, led out by Manu García, the local boy whose name was on the shirt when they played their first ever final, against Liverpool 16 years ago. His was the kind of story that makes football worthwhile, but it wasn’t to be. Eibar missed out too, although the miracle was that there was even a chance that Ipurua might host teams that big. “No one talks about us,” striker Sergi Enrich said, but they should have done.
Espanyol briefly hovered there and at one point, Las Palmas thought they might just make it too – but then the collapse came. The relationship between coach and board broke down and so did the team. Las Palmas had been top in week three, playing the best football around, but won just three times in the second half of the season. “It’s incredible to have seen this team before and to see it now,” Quique Setién said.
At the bottom, Betis dangled as precariously as the scoreboard hanging over one end of the stadium, Málaga were falling apart until “The Cat” used up his seventh life – yes, in Spain it’s seven – and Míchel came to sort them out, while Deportivo were occasionally on edge too. They beat Barcelona, though, and Pepe Mel saw them clear. For a while, Valencia genuinely feared the drop. And as for first division debutants Leganés, they fought to the penultimate weekend, which was one week less than they had expected. They all struggled a little but they all had one thing going for them. Well, three things: Granada, Osasuna and Sporting. Between them, they went through eight managers, but it made no difference.
The bottom three were not alone in sacking managers: three men went over Christmas, season of goodwill and all that. Nor, in fact, were they the worst: Valencia went from Pako Ayesterán to Voro to Cesare Prandelli and back to Voro again – the temporary caretaker solution the club turned to for a fifth time and the man who soon had the best record in their history, better than all those actual managers. Valencia’s very own Winston Wolfe, Voro, he rescued them not once but twice and was then ushered off again.
The first man Voro replaced, Ayesterán, had gone so early it doesn’t feel like this season any more and he was swiftly followed by Paco Jémez at Granada: it was only week seven but he’d been complaining from the start, begging to be sacked. He was replaced by Lucas Alcaraz, Granada through and through, the manager with a gate named after him at the stadium, but he was saddled with a sorry side and didn’t see out it to the end. Nor did “revolutionary” Abelardo, who was Sporting Gijón. Enrique Martín Monreal, another coach who embodied his club, thought he might last the season but was sacked oh so sooner – sorry – and his replacement Joaquín Caparrós didn’t win a game. So they, like Granada, ended with three different coaches and relegation.
Tony Adams was of course the man who took over at Los Cármenes. He did so with seven games to go, put there by the owner, his boss at the Chinese company DDMC. He promised to kick his players “up the arse”, even though he knew it was a lost cause. Many laughed, and it was often funny, but Adams the manager blinded people to something more profound: Adams the sporting director seeking to restructure the whole club.
The Guardian Sport