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Spain's Best of the Rest

by Kieran Pender on May 25, 2011

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With the Spanish season concluded, and only the small matter of a trip to Wembley for Barcelona getting in the way of holidays, it seems like a good time to survey the La Liga table beyond just the top two.

While Barcelona and Real Madrid may be way ahead of their nearest opposition, the other 18 teams in the Spanish league certainly don’t lack quality players, hilarious tales and interesting characters.

And top of that list, behind the ubiquitous top two, is Valencia, nestled nicely away on Mediterranean. This season saw them finish 21 points behind Madrid, and while that is four points closer than last year, it’s still another dart for La Liga haters to throw at the league.

But rather than criticise Los Che for failing to keep pace with their richer and more fancied opponents, it is perhaps worthwhile to mention the amazing feats the club has achieved this season. While the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez may have hurt Manchester United several years ago, the loss of David Villa and David Silva last offseason arguably crippled Valencia even more. And yet, they bounced back, led La Liga for several rounds at the beginning of the season, and end their campaign with automatic qualification for Champions League football

As Spanish expert Phil Ball writes in his excellent piece for ESPN Soccernet (http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story/_/id/922694/phil-ball:-la-liga-d-day?cc=3436), “Despite losing their two best players, despite having no money, despite being knocked out of the Champions League by Schalke, despite treating their excellent manager Unai Emery appallingly, and despite constant moaning from the fans, they've finished third again, with exactly the same points tally as last season (when they had Davids Villa and Silva).”

One of Ball’s points worth highlighting is Valencia’s lack of cash, with the side currently carrying an estimated €500 million debt. Add to this a half finished new stadium they can’t afford to finish, and an old stadium they can’t sell, and you can see why the side is in dire need of a financial bailout.

And while this may not eventuate, their continued ability to finish third and secure Champions League football offers a lifeline to both their fans and those who wish for a team to challenge the might of the big two. Now if only they’d stop treating their manager shockingly, and stop flogging their best players.

Although Villarreal finished fourth, and the tiny side definitely deserves plaudits, the Yellow Submarine will have to wait for another blog, as the next side to get a mention is Athletic Bilbao. The Basque side finished sixth on 58 points, and will find themselves in the Europa League next season.

Bilbao’s story is made all the more remarkable by the fact that they only recruit players who are nominally ‘home grown’. While this policy has been relaxed recently, and some players without direct Basque heritage have been signed, the side is still made up solely of Spanish footballers.

With the likes of Spanish striker Fernando Llorente, young starlet Iker Muniain and midfielder Javi Martínez, Bilbao has a solid core capable of challenging any side. Llorente finished the season with 18 goals, and despite overtures from other clubs, Bilbao fans will be hoping the man they call The Lion King will be hanging around for a further push up the table.

Sadly, one side who doesn’t deserve a mention along with the ‘best of the rest’ is Deportivo la Coruña. The once mighty Super Depor, who only a decade ago were one of the best sides in Europe, have now fallen, and will be plying their trade in the Segunda Division next season.

At the beginning of this season I wrote in Soccer International’s League’s of Europe Season Guide that after an inconsistent previous season “Deportivo will be looking to erase these memories with a much better campaign in 2010.” Unfortunately however, they now end their 2010/11 campaign with relegation.

Sadly, for a team that only a decade ago was pushing for the La Liga title, the end of their time in the top flight is now here. And while it is right to celebrate the achievements of others in attempting to push over Spain’s big two, the tale of Super Depor should read of caution to those sides; without the financial clout of Barcelona or Real Madrid, the best of the rest are only ever a step away from peril.