After three trophyless seasons, Real Madrid secured their 30th Spanish league title on Sunday night, deposing Barcelona as champions following one of the closest championship races in years. The Madrid giants left it late, only confirming the end of their wilderness period in the final minutes of the season.
The architect of their long-awaited success was coach Fabio Capello, who returned to the club at the start of the season promising to repeat his league championship triumph of 1996/97. With fellow title aspirants Sevilla and Barcelona setting a hot pace in the early stages of the campaign though, the Italian tactician at times struggled to keep his team's challenge on course.
Heavily criticised after deciding to jettison Ronaldo and sideline David Beckham in the wake of his much-publicised deal with Los Angeles Galaxy, Capello found no respite out on the pitch as his side slipped to unexpected home defeats to newly promoted Levante and Recreativo Huelva and an early UEFA Champions League exit at the hands of an unimpressive Bayern Munich. Slowly but surely though, the results started to come.
The turning point came on 13 May when Madrid mounted an epic comeback to defeat Espanyol 4-3, while frontrunners Barcelona dropped two points at home after shipping a last-minute goal to Betis. With both sides tied on points, the Merengues took to the top thanks to a superior head-to-head record against Barça, having beaten the Catalans 2-0 at home earlier in the season before drawing 3-3 at the Camp Nou in the return fixture.
Madrid were still in charge as the final day of the season dawned, with Barcelona and Sevilla in close pursuit. The Andalusians saw their outside hopes disappear with a home defeat to Villarreal, but with Mallorca taking an early lead at the Bernabeu and Barcelona brushing aside the already-relegated Nastic, it looked as if the championship was heading to Catalonia once more. Still trailing as the final 20 minutes approached, Capello's charges suddenly sprang into life, piercing the Mallorcan rearguard three times in the closing stages to trigger wild celebrations across the city.
"There have been some great sides and tough rivals this season. But the prize went to the team that believed in themselves the most," commented a euphoric Raul, sporting the club flag around his shoulders.
The skipper had every reason to be pleased, the league crown coming as deserved reward for a side who held firm in the face of fierce criticism, storming to success while the finely tuned Barcelona machine spluttered to a halt after two trophy-laden seasons.
Frank Rijkaard's men had kicked off the campaign in the worst possible way by losing to Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup. Defeat to Internacional of Brazil in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup in December was followed by a last-16 exit from the Champions League at the hands of Liverpool, a setback that hit morale hard. The cracks in the Catalan camp soon began appear as some players made their discontent known and performance levels began on drop on the pitch. With Barça's mantle of superiority inexorably slipping, Madrid took full advantage, putting their own troubles behind them to surge to the title.
The battle for Europe and the deadly drop
Catching the eye elsewhere were Manuel Pellegrini's Villarreal, who recovered from a less-than impressive start to the season to claim a UEFA Cup spot. Following Juan Roman Riquelme's return to Argentina, it was Marcos Senna and Diego Forlan who stood tall to inspire the team to a spectacular season-ending run that ensured European football will be returning to the Madrigal again in the autumn.
Joining them in the UEFA Cup are Zaragoza, who return to the European stage thanks in no small part to their sizeable Argentinian contingent. With Victor Fernandez providing a sure hand on the bench, Zaragoza were indebted to Diego Milito's 22 goals, the defensive reliability of his brother Gabriel, Andres d'Alessandro's surging midfield runs and Pablo Aimar's enduring intelligence.
Special mention should also go to Recreativo Huelva, who prior to this campaign had spent only two seasons in the top flight in their 118-year history (1978/79 and 2002/03). It was a case of third time lucky for the men in blue and white, as they stayed up in style, surprising everyone to finish a remarkable eighth on the back of some fine performances from Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Jesus Vazquez and Santi Cazorla.
At the wrong end of the table, Gimnastic Tarragona's first season in the top flight in 56 years ended in disappointment as they went straight back to the second division. Joining them there will be two of Spanish football's more illustrious names, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo.
The Basque side have been struggling to hold their own after just missing out on the title in 2002/2003, and despite embarking on a new project this season, Darko Kovacevic, Xabi Prieto and company have been unable to halt the slide. With the club's two title successes of the early eighties now a distant memory, the city of San Sebastian will have to make do without first-division football for the first time since 1966/67.
Over in Galicia, Celta Vigo relived the nightmare of three seasons ago when they fell through the relegation trapdoor after competing in the Champions League for the first time in their history. Within a year they were back, but after clinching a UEFA Cup berth last season, history repeated itself. Faced with a battle on three fronts in the league, Copa del Rey and Europe, Celta's overworked squad were unable to stave off the drop despite Hristo Stoichkov's late arrival on the bench. Encouragingly, though, the Bulgarian legend has vowed to take the club straight back up again.
The newly completed season has been something of a transitional one. While global figures such as Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham have all played their final seasons with Real Madrid, a host of new and not-so-new names have burst onto the Spanish scene.
Having found the back of the net 26 times, Ruud van Nistelrooy finished one goal behind Francesco Totti in the race for the Europe's Golden Boot. The free-scoring Dutchman was crucial to his club's renaissance, bagging vital points and getting his side out of trouble with some opportunistic strikes, while his never-say-die spirit also set an example for the rest of the dressing room to follow. Down in Barcelona, meanwhile, the supremely gifted Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta did their very best to make up for an off-form Ronaldinho and the injured Samuel Eto'o.
With a well-balanced squad and a telepathic understanding between the players, Sevilla confirmed their status in the Spanish elite. Frederic Kanoute's 21 goals caught the eye, although the modest Mali international was ably abetted by the relentless Dani Alves, the incombustible Luis Fabiano and young guns Antonio Puerta and Jesus Navas.
Hampered by a dreadful run of injuries at the start of the season, Valencia had to settle for fourth place. Coach Quique Sanchez Flores has no need to be downhearted though, particularly with David Villa in such fine goalscoring form. Another bright spot was the emergence of David Silva. Having worried defences all season long with his searing pace and close control, the young left winger has built up a fine attacking partnership with his forward namesake. Evergreen keeper Santiago Canizares showed he has plenty of life left in him at the age of 37, and young centre-half Raul Albiol produced a string of composed performances alongside Roberto Ayala at the heart of the defence.
And so another high-octane season comes to a close. The dust may already be settling on a breathless run-in, but it will not be long before the stars of the Spanish footballing firmament return to battle it out for the country's most coveted crown.