Despite taxing off-field events in their first season of the post-Pep Guardiola era, Barcelona re-asserted themselves as Spain’s leading club. Both coach Tito Vilanova and French defender Eric Abidal suffered serious illnesses, with the latter returning to action a year after undergoing a liver transplant. Nevertheless, the Catalans surged to their fourth league title in five years, dethroning 2012 champions Real Madrid and equalling their record 100-point haul in the process.
Los Blancos paid the price for a sluggish start to the campaign in which they recorded just three victories from their opening seven games. That return was in marked contrast to Barça, who burst out of the blocks and grabbed 19 of the initial 21 points on offer. It also created an unfamiliar situation that La Liga has not witnessed often in recent years, namely that Barcelona and Real did not occupy the top two places in the standings up until the final third of the season. Atletico Madrid were sandwiched in between and, under Diego Simeone’s guidance, the club finished in the top three for the first time in 17 years.
The championship race may have been decided early on, but the battle for top-flight survival and European qualification raged until the very end. After labouring throughout much of last year, Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano emerged as the surprise packages of the season, winning over many neutrals with their top-quality performances and impressive results. So much so that Vallecano established a new club best mark by finishing eighth, while Sociedad have a chance to return to the Champions League after a ten-year absence.
Stars of the show
Raphael Varane (Real Madrid), aged 20. The development of the French defender, who arrived in the Spanish capital in 2011 on the advice of Zinedine Zidane, has been one of the few highlights in an otherwise disappointing season by Los Blancos’ standards. An injury to Pepe opened the door to a starting berth alongside Sergio Ramos in central defence and Varane took full advantage. He still has the potential to improve, but demonstrated his outstanding positioning, ease in possession and aerial ability throughout the campaign until a knee injury forced him to the sidelines towards the end.
Leo Baptistao (Rayo Vallecano), aged 20. The Brazil-born attacking midfielder announced his arrival on 25 August last year, scoring one and creating another on his debut. Baptistao’s speed and first-class technique soon made him a regular in coach Paco Jemez’s side in a sensational campaign for the Madrid-based outfit.
Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), aged 24. After appearing for several teams over the last few years, Costa’s fourth season in the Primera Division marked his breakthrough. Despite starting out as third-choice striker, his strength of character, will to win and nose for goal earned Costa a place in the starting line-up as the perfect foil for Radamel Falcao.
46: Number of goals Lionel Messi scored over the season to take the honour as league top scorer once more. The Argentinian set a new record after finding the net in 21 consecutive games in the 38-match championship, finishing with a tally 12 goals greater than his closest pursuer Cristiano Ronaldo.
15 September 2012. In the wake of another defeat for Real Madrid, Barcelona opened up an eight-point lead over their rivals after winning all four of their opening encounters. By contrast, Real had lost two and drawn one, leaving their chances of catching Tito Vilanova’s troops rather bleak even this early on.
13 January 2013. Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Malaga, coupled with Real’s goalless draw in Osasuna, established a mammoth 18-point gap between the two, the biggest disparity over the course of the season. Atletico Madrid trailed the Catalans by ten points and were their closest challengers at this stage, meaning the title was Barça’s to lose.
11 May 2013: Real Madrid’s 1-1 draw away to Espanyol handed Barcelona the championship crown with three games to spare. Barça were given the traditional guard of honour at Atletico Madrid prior to their match the following day.
1 June 2013. On a nail-biting final day four teams were battling to beat the drop, with Celta Vigo eventually avoiding relegation. Real Sociedad took fourth spot despite going into the last round of matches as outsiders, having drawn 3-3 with Real Madrid a week earlier.
Season in summary
Qualified for the UEFA Champions League:
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad (qualifying round).
Qualified for the UEFA Europa League:
Valencia, Malaga*, Betis.
Relegated to the second division:
Mallorca, Deportivo La Coruna, Zaragoza.
Promoted to Primera Division:
Elche. The remaining two teams are to be confirmed.
* After being sanctioned by UEFA, Malaga’s participation in the Europa League will depend on a decision by the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS).