Casual observers, more often than not, write off the Spanish Primera Liga as a two horse race, that between Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Valencia showing up once a while to spoil the party and the other sides serving up nothing more than fodder for the thoroughbreds.
While it is easy to take the write-off at face value (and why not, the two Spanish behemoths share an outstanding 50 Spanish Leagues and 13 UCLs between them, amongst a host of other domestic and international honors), a closer look back over the last decade makes one realize that though Liga has been more or less a two horse race in terms of the end of season result, every season there has been a dark horse that has threatened to topple the domination of the Twin Towers of Spanish football.
The start of the new millennium saw the advent of a great team called Super Depor, none other than Deportivo la Coruna (), a team though not quite as decorated as but nevertheless comparable to Barcelona’s Dream Team and Real Madrid’s Quinte de la Buitre. Though Real Madrid eventually went on to win the UEFA Champions League that season, it was Super Depor who won the 99-00 edition of Liga. The team included talents like Roy Makaay, Diego Tristan and Silva. However, the 99-00 La Liga being Depor’s 1st ever title, was nothing compared to their whirlwind season of 03-04 which saw them beat Juventus in the UCL knockouts without conceding a goal. But even this dint beat the encounter that followed which saw Super Depor win 4-0 at The Riazor against an in form AC Milan, after having lost the 1st leg 1-4 at San Siro. The Riazor is incidentally Real Madrid’s bogey stadium, where Madrid hasn’t been able to get a positive result for the past 18 years. Coming back to 03-04, Depor eventually went down fighting like lions to Jose Mourinho’s Porto FC, who eventually went on to become champions of Europe that season. Deportivo la Coruna hasn’t been the same team since, but they have always finished inside the top 10 every season, just shy of the top 5 slots.
Real Sociedad, the 1 season wonder
Following the whirlwind 99-00 season, Super Depor finished as runners up in the 00-01 edition of La Liga, second only to Valencia who finished as champions; the same Valencia who featured in the all Spanish final of the 99-00 edition of UCL in the Stade de France, Paris. The 02-03 season saw another dark horse shake its mane, rear up and gallop away with the title, well almost. Real Sociedad encapsulated the finest in Spain that season finishing just 2 points behind Florentino Perez’s Galacticos Part I. The key members of that Sociedad side included Darko Kovacevic, Nihat Kahveci and Xabi Alonso. This Sociedad side dominated the entire year round, sitting top of the table till match day 37, and finished the season unbeaten at home and 6 away defeats. Only the Galacticos conquered them, but only just and that too on the last day through Sociedad’s undoing when they lost to Celta Vigo. Great things were expected out of Sociedad the next season; however they failed to live up to their own standards and faded into obscurity in the next season itself. An honorable mention to Celta Vigo who challenged like champions in the 01-02 and 02-03 editions of La Liga.
Real Betis Balompie & Osasuna
The 03-04 season saw Valencia as the run away winners with 77 points, while 2 points separated the next 3 positions occupied by Barcelona (72), Depor (71) and Real Madrid (70) respectively. It was one of the closest battles fought for the runner up position in the Liga. The 04-05 season saw parity restored as the traditional power houses of Spain battled it out, with Barcelona emerging as winners. Two frog leaps behind a total of 5 points separated the next 4 positions with Valencia, Real Betis, Espanyol and Sevilla battling it out for the Champions League spot. Only Valencia and Real Betis made it. Real Betis had been perennial challengers since the turn of the century having finished inside the top 10. They sprung more than a fair share of surprises for the top clubs during their time. Real Betis got knocked out in the group stage itself.
The 05-06 edition of La Liga was a closely fought season with only 4 points separating the first 5 positions. Barcelona did the league double with 82 points while Real Madrid ended up runners up at 80. Valencia followed at 69, while Osasuna and Sevilla were tied on 68 points. Osasuna who until then had been finishing outside the top 10 and had even flirted with relegation for a couple of season suddenly found them in Europe’s top tier tournament. The pressure proved too much and they crashed out in the qualification round against Hamburg. However, they made it till the semi final in Europe’s 2nd tier tournament leaving a string of upsets in their wake. Osasuna were never able to replicate that kind of form again. The following season they finished outside the top 10 again and in the 08-09 season they avoided relegation one of the last matches of the season thanks to a goal scored by a former merengue (Juanfran).
The 06-07 season dawned with Real Madrid having won zilch for 4 years in a row and Barcelona as hot favorites. The pressure was on Real Madrid’s new coach, Fabio Capello to deliver. The season started reasonably well for everyone, but the way it ended has become a story of legend. Real Madrid overcame a 5 point deficit over Barcelona in the last 13 games, winning most of them having gone a goal or two down. The title wasn’t settled after 38 games with Real Madrid and Barcelona tied on points. However Real Madrid were declared winners since they had the better head to head record. During this season, the only team that dared to challenge the two sides was Sevilla. Sevilla FC, the oldest club in Andalusia was relegated to Segunda at the turn of the century. Hence they did not take part in the 1st edition of the Primera in the new millennium.
Sevilla however were promoted at the end of 2001 and came once again to top flight Spanish football in the 02-03 season, finishing 8th in the table. From here on, Sevilla began a steady ascendency in the table finishing 3rd in the 06-07 season. The Andalusians play slick free flowing football, and are known as a unit rather than individual talents. Sevilla’s resurrection began with the hiring of coach Juande Ramos in 2005. In 2005, Sevilla won the UEFA Cup, trumped the then European Champions Barcelona to win the 06-07 UEFA Super Cup and successfully defended its UEFA Cup title against Espanyol in an all Spanish final in 06-07. Sevilla qualified for the 07-08 edition of UCL, but couldn’t get past the first knockout round. They however managed to secure a place in the 09-10 UCL by finishing 3rd in the table in the 08-09 season.
The 07-08 season was dominated from the outset by Real Madrid and they went on to finish as runaway group leaders with a 12 point lead. Barcelona held on to 2nd place for most of the season, but crashed out terribly at the season’s close allowing even Villareal to finish 10 points ahead of them.
Like Sevilla, even Villareal played the 99-00 edition of Liga in Segunda but secured promotion for next year finishing inside the top 10 in 00-01 in the Primera Liga. In the next 2 seasons Villareal battled relegation and finished just above the drop zone. In 03-04 Villareal reached the semi finals of the UEFA Cup, followed immediately by a quarter final crash-out in the 04-05 edition of the UEFA Cup. Manuel Pellegrini’s hiring as the coach in 2004 turned the team’s fortune. Villareal finished 3rd in the 04-05 season qualifying for the 05-06 UCL. Villareal topped the group in Europe, a group which consisted of European veterans like Manchester United, holding out Man Utd to a 0-0 draw over 2 legs. They knocked out Internationazale Milan in the quarter finals, but narrowly lost out to Arsenal in the semi-finals. However, they earned a lot of praise during that season as an European newbie which played slick, attacking football and was not afraid to take the game to the big teams. The Yellow Submarine as Villareal are referred to, again drew Arsenal in the 08-09 season. They drew the 1st leg but lost the 2nd leg 3-0 to Arsenal.
…Spanish football has always emphasized on creativity over mundane strategies. It is this creativity which when nurtured properly gave rise to these so called Dark Horses. Spanish teams, as a rule, can boast of a strong youth foundation in all their teams. Combined with this youth foundation, shrewd signings of players with potential has enabled some teams over the year to churn out extraordinary results with what seemingly looks like an average squad of players.
The question that now arises is that with so much apparent talent, why do these so called dark horses find it hard to turn into unicorns, those elusive, mythical leaders of horses? Why does the Liga still seemingly look like a 2 horse race to people? I would like to know your views regarding these questions which I would compile to prepare the Part II of this article which deals with why these dark horses don’t turn into unicorn and what steps need to be taken to rectify this error.