It started in tears. Lionel Messi touched down on the evening of 4 August, flying into El Prat especially. Officially unemployed, he had come to sign the contract that would see him play a 17th season at Barcelona but by the time it began he was gone, like Zinedine Zidane and Sergio Ramos before him. Three of the most significant men in Spanish football over the last decade had departed in a single summer. Yet at his presentation in Paris just two days before it all started at Mestalla, on a day that felt all wrong then and feels a world away now, Messi insisted: “In the end what matters is the teams: Barcelona and Madrid are still there, so are Sevilla, Valencia, Atlético.”
And the rest. Although it wasn’t what they had planned, turning up in part because no one else had and with few appreciating how significant it was it at the time, the most successful coach in European football was there too, Carlo Ancelotti quietly arriving back in town. So, at last, were the fans. A few of them at first, then more and more until eventually stadiums were full. “I had waited a long time to live this moment,” Athletic coach Marcelino García Toral said, speaking for everyone, when he finally saw and felt San Mames something like the way it’s supposed to be. “Waking up on a Sunday morning to go to the ground with your family or friends is beautiful. People need football and football needs the people; they are football,” Diego Simeone insisted.
His Atlético Madrid team had won the league without their people, even if plenty had gone to grounds they couldn’t get into, Luis Suárez becoming an icon they had still never seen in the flesh. Now they had their supporters back, a title to defend and a supposedly strengthened squad to defend it with, handed the challenge of retaining the league for the first time in 70 years. “We’re the champions and they’re all going to come to bite our arse,” Simeone warned. Instead, they would fall on it, that defence over almost before it had begun, part of the problem precisely the fact that they were champions.
The new season was 31 seconds old when Valencia’s Hugo Guillamón launched into the challenge that brought the first red of 2021-22, VAR finally confirming the decision two and a half minutes later, the mark of Bordalas made already. Atlético struggled but won in Vigo. Érik Lamela scored more goals in 45 minutes than in the whole of the previous season at Spurs. Alas, he would only get one more than that in the rest of this campaign, his injury an early warning of the coming storm for Sevilla. Real Madrid went to Vitoria and scored four, Karim Benzema up and running already, he and Luka Modric just better.
Barcelona also scored four, Martin Braithwaite getting his first, second and last league goals and Gerard Piqué heading the opener, having publicly taken the pay-cut that allowed Memphis Depay to get registered, play and provide the pass from which he scored. “I think we’re going to enjoy this year,” Piqué said.
They didn’t much, one night at the Santiago Bernabéu apart – and by then they were under new management, Xavi back. Barcelona won only two of their opening five and had lost three times by the end of October, Piqué soon saying they were in a “critical situation”. What do people want us to do, play tiki taka?” Ronald Koeman spat, failing to see that the answer was: well, yes. His already inevitable sacking was confirmed on the plane home from defeat in Vallecas, the place which was fast becoming Spain’s best night out.
Despite a desperate institutional crisis, Rayo Vallecano were the revelation, living the days of their lives. “A few weeks ago, I posted a message saying ‘dreaming of the Champions League’ and my teammates were laying into me telling me to delete it,” goalkeeper Stole Dimitrevski said, but somehow the smallest team in the division, the club with a wall instead of a stand at one end and a president who couldn’t be worse if he tried, which he sometimes seems to, went into Christmas in a Champions League place. “Now I’m laughing at them a bit,” Dimitrevski said. The best home side in Europe, Rayo also reached the semi-final of the Copa del Rey for the first time in 40 years, although they slipped away badly, as their coach Andoni Iraola always said they would.
Rayo’s success didn’t make that defeat any easier for Barcelona to take: they were ninth when they lost in Vallecas in week 11. The following matchday, Betis went top, then Sevilla did, then Real Madrid, then Real Sociedad, all in the space of a couple of days. With Madrid, Atlético and Barcelona dropping points that week and none entirely convincing yet – so far they had won only half the 30 games played between them – Spain was set for a fantastically tight title race, open to unusual suspects, or so it goes. But that didn’t happen either.
Real Sociedad had been superb, the early leaders built from home, but Imanol Alguacil, their manager, didn’t appear that bothered when they were knocked off the top in week 14. He almost seemed pleased, in fact, a little realism allowed back in, no longer constantly asked if his team could actually win this. By May, when la Real finished sixth, having seen just 25 goals at home, he declared a campaign that was already “the consecrated bread” had ended up being better. He knew: back then, he had rightly predicted “it will be the same four as usual up there at the end”.
It took until week 27 for them all to come together for the first time, but ultimately Sevilla joined Madrid and Atlético in the top four. Busy in the winter window, seeking solutions in the midst of an economic crisis that has not gone away however much some close their eyes and pretend it has, getting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with seconds to go, and using 38 players, Barcelona recovered under Xavi and ended up there too. Finishing second was a success of sorts. That made this the same top four for a third year in a row, the same top three for a decade, and the same top seven as last year, albeit not in the same order – Villarreal, last year’s Europa League winners, this year’s extraordinary Champions League semi-finalists, were the last of them. “Not being in Europe after 14 years would have affected me,” Unai Emery said after they took the Conference League slot on the final day.
Sevilla made much of celebrating Champions League qualification for a record third consecutive season, but they had hoped for more. Spain had. Atlético lost four in a row in December, Barcelona had too much ground to make up and by the new year Sevilla knew they were the only team that could make a competition of this. “Fans keep telling us: ‘You have to catch Madrid,’” captain Ivan Rakitic said, but no one could. At the start of February, he had a last-minute penalty saved in a draw at Osasuna that was part of an emerging pattern and foreshadowed what followed, their title hopes fading if not entirely gone yet. They lost only two of their last 18 games but, despite having a goalkeeper who scored one last year and provided two assists this, despite adding Tecatito and a desperately disappointing Antony Martial, they only won five of them.
Madrid’s win at Sevilla virtually ended it in April and they eased to the line, building up an unassailable lead almost unnoticed. As unnoticed as Real Madrid ever can be, at least. What had seemed unlikely at the start ended up feeling inevitable. The team that had lost both its centre-backs, was supposed to be have problems, that was not that good, proved much too good. Here and there. Turns out La Liga is alright after all, still European elite.
Madrid went top in week 14 and never left, a transitional season becoming the best of seasons, maybe even their greatest. They won all the games that really mattered and the physical collapse that was always going to come never came, Ancelotti gently dismissing demands he rotate. “I don’t want to change what’s going well for a supposition,” he said. The only thing certain was that at the end of it all, he was smoking a cigar, the boss. Here he was, this accidental manager celebrating with his friends, “because the players are my friends”, a champion in his fifth major European league – and four weeks early.
At the other end, Getafe started with seven straight defeats, their desperately unlucky manager Míchel wondering weekly why he kept seeing the same film and when the good guys would finally win. He was sacked and Getafe were somehow guided to safety by Quique Sánchez Flores. Elche too had been in trouble, yet found results when Francisco took over. Ultimately, a change of coach at Cádiz and Mallorca would also pay off but they had to wait a little longer. Granada, Levante and Alavés meanwhile had nine managers and none could save them. Levante and Alavés were gone early, Granada went on a cruel final day.
“This team reached the summit, now it has to leap for the moon,” Granada’s first manager, Roberto Moreno, said when he came in the summer, only to crash to earth early in the season his tenure defined in a phrase. They thought they had done enough to survive under their third coach, Aitor Karanka, a five-game unbeaten run putting them virtually safe, fate back in their own hands, but survival slipped through their fingers on the final day. “When I came there was anxiety, now there is music,” Karanka had said; it became a funeral march when Jorge Molina, the man who least deserves to miss a decisive penalty, missed a decisive penalty. Mallorca, who had needed a miracle to get that far, survived at the last. So did Cádiz.
The Copa del Rey ended in the hands of real royalty. The competition had been marked most of all by Athletic Club, who knocked out Real Madrid and Barcelona but lost to Valencia in the semi-final, sparking wild celebrations at Mestalla and leaving them without a third final in a row. Valencia were then defeated in the final by Real Betis, a result that released growing tension at home but elsewhere made a lot of people smile and for many reasons. It was the first time Betis had won anything in 17 years. Juan Miranda, a five-year-old watching from the stands when they last won, now scoring the decisive penalty, collapsing to his knees and sobbing when it came to him just what he had done. The Betis captain Joaquín had been there in 2005 too; the difference is that he was playing then and still playing now, aged 40, heading up to collect his second trophy with the club – half of all those Betis have ever won.
And so it was that on the final day, eight months after it had all begun, Real Madrid and Real Betis performed a double guard of honour, one after the other: a season of success finally over. Well, almost. Real Madrid had just one more thing to do. And it was the most extraordinary thing of all.
Not that Betis and Madrid were the only winners Both these two were, for a start …
Most disputed result
Most unexpected source of inspiration
Some turn to Christ, Getafe turned to Crystal Palace. And it worked too.
Looking like Timothy Claypole would have been bad enough; this was worse. “The Barcelona shirt weighs 20 kilos more,” Xavi said. They really ought to have a word with Nike.
Most awkward moment
When one journalist had miscalculated the combinations needed for survival, asking Alessio Lisci how he was going to motivate his players for the final, almost impossible push, it was left to Levante’s manager to break the news that it was already too late. The coach paused a moment, hesitating as if not sure what to say, then replied softly: “We’re down, Eugenio.”
Most indestructible footballer
Real Sociedad’s Robin Le Normand was denied the chance to play every single minute of the season by a soft yellow and thus a softer suspension two weeks from the finish line, so the winner is Iñaki Williams – six years without missing a match.
Best act of solidarity
Iker Muniain running to comfort Alex Remiro at the end of the Basque derby was nice, but better came 99km away in Vitoria. Already relegated, Alavés’s board decided they would charge Cádiz supporters a fortune to attend their final, decisive game at Mendizorroza and Alavés’s fans decided that actually, no, they wouldn’t. They handed over their own season tickets and used their membership cards to buy seats for the visitors. Over 1,000 went and Cádiz survived, travelling supporters serenading their hosts and raising a banner declaring them “an example of passion and values”.
Thousands and thousands of Valencia fans went to Mestalla on the final weekend; enraged by the owner Peter Lim, pretty much none of them actually went in.
Asked what has changed since the early days, when he couldn’t score, Vinícius Junior responded: “I was younger then.”
Most honest referee
César Soto Grande, who told Alavés centre-back Florian Lejuene that he’s right, that the handball rule is “shit”.
Best touchline reporting
The moment when viewers were told that despite their bad results, Getafe’s fans were “still chanting Míchel’s name”. Which indeed they were; it was just a pity it was followed by the words “go” and “now”.
Hugo Hard and Mr Glasses just sound like superheroes. This guy actually is. Cádiz were training one Sunday when a player collapsed. Luckily, third-tier Atlético Salunqueño were preparing to face Cádiz’s B team on an adjacent pitch, their striker – and qualified doctor – Diego Cervero running to the rescue. Not all heroes wear cloaks, but some wear white coats.
Most unexpected hero
Luuk de Jong. And Raúl García: all elbows and, it turns out, all heart too, the man fans love to hate stood up for them when he used the pre-tournament press conference to insist it made “no sense” to go to Saudi Arabia for a Super Cup, adding: “Football doesn’t think about the fans any more: we’re forgetting the most basic thing of all and it makes me sad.”
This one’s ours.
Most stubborn refusal to be best headline
Something, something shot the Sheriff.
Does it count as a debut? Re-debut? Anyway, it’s returnee Dani Alves, standing there in a big white Panama-ish hat, a bright green and pink jacket, and a cat T-shirt, having just scored in his 1,00th game. Scored? In his first game at the Camp Nou since 2015, he had scored, assisted, and got sent off. The best player on the pitch, when he belted one in against Atlético, in a match that was more fun than any of them had had for a long time, he ran to the touchline with his tongue out, waggling his fingers while the rest followed him, hugged everyone, high-fived Xavi and then stood there, arms wide and nodding his head, taking it all in, like Christ the Redeemer. Only cackling slightly and far more iconic obviously.
“If I had hit him, he’d be bleeding” – Raul Albiol responds to suggestions he had fouled Vinícius.
Most philosophical player
Ousmane Dembélé. Who knew? Four years without a word, and suddenly he comes up with that. “Surely love is a kind of blackmail,” he wrote.
João Félix, who scored two goals against Alavés and with good reason. “Luis Suárez asked me to because he’s got me in his fantasy team,” he said. But you can’t beat having the big brother who has pretty much been your father on your side. There was something tender and a little lovely about Iñaki Williams gently admonishing Nico after he tore off his runners’ up medal at the Spanish Super Cup and then laying a comforting hand on his neck as he watched, devastated, while Madrid lifted the trophy. And something very, very lovely about their celebration in the semi-final, brothers in arms. Mum too.
The Williams brothers might even have been the best moment this season. Except for this.
Most paranoid president
Luis Rubiales, who responded to the publication of voice notes between him and Piqué by decrying a conspiracy. “This is a Mafia,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find me in a ditch, shot in the back of the head, but I can’t guarantee you won’t find cocaine in the boot of my car.” Mind you, just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.
Best dressed fans
Atlético supporters took the tabloid headline and turned it into T-shirts, glorying in their team being Mad, Bad and Dangerous. The winner though is the Granada fan who goes full Pope every game, even if he still couldn’t deliver their salvation.
Most hopelessly optimistic fan
Well, it’s not the Camp Nou anyway, where one director says they can’t turn the ovens on because the fuses blow when they do. Yes, they really did have to employ an electrician to sit by the power boxes in case they tripped during games and plunged the place into darkness.
The Camp Nou. When Eintracht came.
OK, OK, best atmosphere
The Camp Nou when Barcelona came. Barcelona femeni that is.
There’s nothing better than hundreds of people turning up for your big day. Apart from thousands of people turning up for your big day.
Talavera, whose entire team took to the field wearing No 17. They weren’t Joaquín, but he was.
This, of course. Real Betis Balompie, ladies and gentlemen, respecting a timeless-and-not-suitable-for-this-website tradition.
“There are nights that stay with you; this is one,” Diego Simeone said after Atlético came back from 2-1 down to beat Valencia 3-2, the ball in play just 46 seconds between the equaliser scored on 89.58 and Mario Hermoso getting his first goal of the season for the winner on 92.13. “Unbelievably beautiful,” Matheus Cunha declared, so they decided to do it again the very next time they were there, only even better; 3-2 and a man down against Getafe, Hermoso scored his second and last goal of the season in the final minute to make it 4-3 with an overhead kick.
Real Sociedad-Villarreal was fun and Athletic-Betis was a brilliant. Real Madrid’s absurd Champions League comebacks kept, well, coming back. And the one in the league against Sevilla was pretty special too. Celta manager Eduardo Coudet proclaimed “I prefer to win 4-3 than 1-0”, then proved it the following day against Mallorca. Poor Mallorca: the islanders managed to drop points from the 89th minute onwards four times in a five-match spell, including a brilliant game against Osasuna that had 30 shots, five goals, two absolute belters, a 97th-minute winner and almost a 103rd-minute equaliser. At that point, Dani Rodríguez had been standing for a very, very long time on the spot waiting to take the penalty that would give the home side a point … until VAR decided there had been an offside in the build-up and the referee strode over and took the ball back off him, literally leaving him empty-handed.
The best though came right near the start of the season: a wild 3-3 that boasted three outrageously good goals in which Levante came from 1-0 down to lead 2-1 against Madrid, conceded, led again, hit the post at 3-2 and let in a gorgeous late equaliser from Vinícius, the night finishing with the one thing the match lacked: centre-back Ruben Vezo going in goal for the final nine minutes. Which, fortunately for him, was the longest anyone had gone without a shot all game. “Football is a show and that’s what I want it to be. For the people, it’s special – and in the end, this is for them,” Levante coach Paco López said. Sadly, not everyone agreed. He was the first manager sacked all season.
If José Luis Morales, a regular in this section, had found the finish to his run against Barcelona, it might well have been him, but he didn’t so it wasn’t. Teammate Jose Campaña did score a lovely half-volley, taken perfectly on the bounce against Real Madrid and yet that wasn’t even the best goal that day: Vinícius’s floaty toe-pokey, dink-type thingamajig was. William Carvalho’s footwork was fancy, not once, but twice. Borja Iglesias’s cup semi-final goal in Vallecas was gorgeous. Iago Aspas bent in an absurdly accurate fading side-footer to equalise against Barcelona in the 96th minute, “describing the trajectory as if he was an architect” in the words of El Faro. “Iago is a genius, and always will be” Nolito said: so good he’s now playing one-twos with himself, off the wall and in. Karim Benzema had many moments. The one he scored in the last minute in Seville was pretty tasty – more for the move than the finish – and it basically secured the title too. Madrid had been set on their way to the title against the same team when Vinícius absolutely wellied it a few months earlier.
If it’s lovely assists that really make a goal – and they probably deserve their own award – try these. Sergio Canales for Alex Moreno against Mallorca and for Borja Iglesias against Espanyol. Lucas Boye’s assist for Pere Milla, escaping Casemiro and Alba before providing the pass, was tasty. And Manu Trigueros’s ball for Dani Parejo in Villarreal’s win over Celta was neat. The best was that Denis Suárez pass for Aspas.
Silly is fun too, so how about this for a way to score the first ever goal in the country’s new confusingly-named third (and fourth) tier, the Primera RFEF? Athletic’s equaliser against Granada was daft: so many players messing up, so many players falling over, so bad it’s good. Yet there’s nothing quite like this, and in the 95th minute too: look how they crumble. Oh, Mandi!
It gets better. First Pedri González put Ivan Rakitic on the floor, next he put Diego Carlos on the floor and then, allowing time to speed up again, he put Yassine Bono on the floor and 76,112 people on their feet.Jordi Alba’s volley against Atlético was good, although it did look suspiciously like his shin. Across town, Dani Pedrosa thundered in a better one from a corner. The Brais was right with this backheel. Check out Carlos Soler’s sort-of scorpion, and Enes Unal’s brilliant overhead kick.
But here’s the podium. Ángel Correa 49.9 metres, 0.0116 expected goals, one actual goal. And it’s glorious. Loren Moron did this from somewhere out near the touchline. And then there’s Luis Suárez, neatly made and brilliantly taken. From 40 yards. First time. On the bounce. So good Simeone just laughed.
David Alaba’s chair, of course. Even if he says: “I cannot even answer what or why … I don’t know why this moment happened.” Especially because of that. The symbol of this season. Just don’t try copying it. Four days after that moment, Villarreal B’s Nicolas Jackson was sent off against UCAM for, as the ref’s report had it, “taking a white PVC chair and hitting it hard against the floor, breaking it”.
In the 95th and final minute of the final day of the season, 21 years since they were last in the first division, having been all the way down to tercera and twice narrowly escaped liquidation, fans rescuing their club, Real Oviedo scored a penalty and then got word that, 295km away, Burgos had miraculously got the goal against Girona that at long, long last sent them into the playoffs for a place in primera, fans losing their minds, players sprinting off screaming, and bodies piling up at the side of the pitch. There was just one problem: Burgos hadn’t scored at all. Painful.
“The important thing was to win and empty the lorry full of shit we had; now the lorry is clean,” Cádiz coach Sergio Gonzalez said after he took over and led them to a first primera win in front of their fans since 2006. Like Javier Aguirre at Mallorca, he arrived late and dragged his side to safety. Francisco carried Elche clear a little earlier, which is why less was said about him than should have been. And Sánchez Flores declared Getafe’s bid for survival “a battle for hungry minds and broken hearts”, which he won, the turnaround extraordinary. There wasn’t much noise around Jagoba Arrasate – well, not normally – and mid-table isn’t sexy but it is a huge success for Osasuna. Andoni Iraola embraced organised chaos and made Rayo so good that everyone forgot that even survival was an achievement. It’s impossible not to warm to Imanol Alguacil and easy to imagine Athletic missing Marcelino. The winner though is Manuel Pellegrini. Or it would be had Ancelotti not completed football.
Best dressed manager
This one is Manuel Pellegrini, who knew what to wear and when to wear it. When he puts on Betis’s magnificent Kappa tracksuit, Betis win 68% of their games; when he doesn’t, it’s half that. Stylish and practical.
Player of the year
Second: Thibaut Courtois. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do to beat Courtois,” Rayo’s Iván Balliu said. “Pray, maybe.”
First: Karim Benzema. Asked one day if Real Madrid were Benzema-dependent, Ancelotti replied: “Yes. And I’m happy to depend on him.” Twenty-seven goals and 12 assists in La Liga alone, the Champions League’s top scorer with 15, including three against PSG, three against City, and four against Chelsea, and just on a different plane. He’s your granny, Iker Casillas said, which presumably means he’s bloody brilliant because he really is.
And finally, a few quotes before you go …
“I’m angry with football” – Celta coach Chacho Coudet. Aren’t we all, Chacho?
“It seems the VAR doesn’t work for Valencia” – José Bordalás. Mate, it doesn’t work for anyone.
“If you don’t value things properly, you lose sight of reality” – Julen Lopetegui offers a lesson for life.
“My uncle always used to say there’s nothing more beautiful than making people happy” – Joaquín’s team talk before the Copa del Rey semi-final. They did.