RCDE Stadium, Barcelona – They entered the pitch like ants. From all angles but to the same target: their heroes. As they hurdled the advertising hoardings and negotiated the odd security guard, some waved flags, others scarves, but all donned a smile. For their team had done it. Unexpectedly so, they had qualified for Europe. 

“Dear Europa League, we’re coming!” That was the message from Espanyol on Saturday evening. Despite having not been present in La Liga’s top seven since early December, Rubi’s side beat Real Sociedad to clinch the final Europa League place. It was a case of perfect timing, rising steadily from 14th spot over a 10-week period, El Magico took the final step with a 2-0 win at home.

The fact that victory came against Real Sociedad, a challenger for the final Europa League place, made it all the better. No one can deny that Espanyol deserve their first season in European competition for 12 years, they have been consistent for much of that period despite not quite matching the lofty ambitions of their Chinese owners. To say that Espanyol’s ‘snatching’ of 7th-place is opportunistic is not entirely true, but few would have expected them to do so a month or so ago.

Similar can be said of Valencia who scored twice against Valladolid without reply to take the final Champions League place. Like Espanyol, Valencia have been unacquainted with the position in which they finished the season – they had not been in the top four until last weekend. Valencia’s hope of entering next season’s Champions League emanated mainly from their Copa del Rey final which is to come against Barcelona on Saturday and their run to the semi finals of the Europa League. That Valencia have managed to clinch qualification through the league is unexpected but not unwarranted.

Given the season that La Liga has offered this time around, it was always likely that the compact nature of the middle order would spring a surprise as the end approached. Many have harbored the belief that they could qualify for Europe this season: Getafe and Sevilla tussled for what seemed to be months before Valencia nipped in and stole the great prize from beneath their noses, whilst it looked like the Basques would fill the Europa League but Athletic Bilbao also lost on the final day to allow Espanyol to take advantage over Real Sociedad.

If anything this shows how close and tight those ‘mid-ranking’ La Liga sides are. Currently there is not too much between Getafe in fifth, Espanyol in seventh and even Real Betis and Alaves – on a good day – in 10th and 11th respectively. This bunching has been apparent throughout the season and the final standings highlight it to the fullest: the gap between Valencia and runners-up Atletico Madrid (15 points) is the same as the gap between Valencia and Eibar in 12th.

The consolidation of the La Liga broadcasting rights has played a major part in making La Liga more competitive, especially in mid-table. Espanyol have definitely benefitted and, in conjunction with the delicate backing from their owners – they paid €10M for Borja Iglesias last summer and he has contributed 17 La Liga goals – it has led to their greatest achievement for some years. These proud moments will come more frequently and to more clubs. “I feel a lot of emotion,” Espanyol manager Rubi said post-match. “I haven’t cried for a long time and today I have done so a lot. I am moved by what the people feel, the union, the sensitivity; it is something magical to see.”

For it is Rubi who a lot of the credit must go, as barring the purchase of Iglesias he has had to deal in loans and free transfers – like most clubs in Spain. He took charge in June last year and has now taken them into Europe. When Rastar Group took over the club in 2015, chairman Chen Yansheng famously said that they would have them in the Champions League within three years. Despite being slightly delayed, this is a step in the right direction.

Rubi has been the difference though and many in the know with regards to Spanish football agree. He has turned a side who continually stumbled on the path to Europe into a team that were hard to beat; to put it into perspective, they lost only one more La Liga match than Real Madrid this season. Rubi has never been frightened of a challenge, as it was he who guided Huesca to their first season in Primera last campaign before joining Espanyol. His ideas and style in many ways contradict what went before him at Espanyol, he has made the club more fashionable and more liked.

Espanyol sat in second place with a third of the season played, they fell but got up again – at just the right time – and all’s well that end’s well. Around Winter, they struggled and tired as they played eight matches in 26 days and descended to close to the relegation zone for comfort. But a correction of their away form, which had been poor, took Espanyol back up the table, the optimism grew and the fight strengthened.

It led to Saturday.

Real Sociedad were the opponents and it was they who conjured the first chance; under the bright Catalonian sun, Ander Barrenetxea shot just wide of Diego Lopez’s left post having cut inside with superb agility. It was an open and even first half, deceptive of the achievements at stake. A free-kick from the left was headed onto the Real Sociedad crossbar by Wu Lei, Hector Moreno couldn’t clear the rebound and the ball was headed back towards goal. Lei, making a nuisance of himself, forced the ball behind the goalline but was adjudged to have been in an offside position.

A quick break from La Real ended with Willian Jose firing straight at the goalkeeper, the second half had begun just as the first had ended. Then, as the hour mark approached, an Espanyol corner was swung outwards to substitute Victor Sanchez. Whether he was still finding his feet having only just entered the fray, or be it down to the excitement, he swung his right foot at the ball hopefully but completely missed it. Luckily it fell for Roberto Rosales 10 feet to his left, the Venezuelan left back rifled a shot through a plethora of players and past Geronimo Rulli.

The RCDE stadium started to believe, with Sevilla beating Athletic, Espanyol had one foot in Europe. When Wu Lei scored a second a few minutes later with a fine finish when one-on-one with Rulli, belief turned into expectancy for the first time all season. The emotions flowed out and as the final 20 minutes of the season played out, Espanyol began to celebrate. The party had begun in the stands, it soon started on the pitch too. By the full time whistle, players, coaches and fans were in unison celebrating an unlikely triumph. Rubi was hoisted into the air, those in blue and white stripes sang his name whilst giving him the bumps. It’s moments like this that make football, as one headline read: “Rubi: the generator of dreams”. From dreams to nightmares and back again, it aptly sums it all up.

Los Otros Puntos

Espanyol did have Sevilla a lot to thank as their victory over Athletic Bilbao allowed all of this to happen. Wissam Ben Yedder took advantage of a slight defensive mishap to give Joaquin Caparros’s side the lead prior to the break and the lead was doubled in the last minute following a short period of football that left the mind boggled. It started with a corner being delivered from the right for Athletic, Munian struck a shot against the crossbar, the rebound was mishit by Inigo Martinez and Sevilla broke. Jesus Navas sped into the Athletic half where he was met by Iago Herrerin, the Athletic goalkeeper, close to the halfway line. Herrerin won the ball elegantly before being dispossessed by Bryan Gil. He then passed back to Navas who ran towards goal with Herrerin chasing after him. Then Navas teed up Ben Yedder who swung his right foot at the ball but his shot was stopped – somehow! – by the backtracking Herrerin, the rebound was jabbed to Munir El Haddadi who slotted home for 2-0. Quite a finish to the season at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

It was Valencia who took the final Champions League spot with a win over Valladolid. Considering Marcelino’s men finished in exactly the same position last season, this felt so much more remarkable and hard work. Credit therefore must go to Getafe who made it so difficult for them. Yet on the final day Getafe could only draw with Villarreal, although ultimately it didn’t matter, and so their far-fetched dream of travelling to Munich, Manchester or Paris was over, instead they will have to make do with Prague, St-Petersburg and, god forbid, Baku.

Valladolid’s loss though was in fact celebrated by their own supporters. They were safe in Primera for another season, despite having the smallest budget and the most famous owner.

It felt fitting that Iago Aspas’s backheel finish gave Celta Vigo the goal to draw with Rayo Vallecano. There has been no player in La Liga this season who has given more, and felt more, for his club.

It was also fitting that Real Madrid finished the season with a whimper. Zinedine Zidane must be wishing he stayed put on that beach in Miami and waited for the Juventus job.

The relationship between Quique Setien and Real Betis has always enthralled and troubled, the pair came together and forged some of the greatest and most entertaining football the league has ever seen. Yet there has long been the feeling that neither quite ‘got’ each other. And so having beaten Real Madrid 2-0 at the Bernabeu on the last day, a long with winning at Camp Nou and beating Sevilla in the home derby earlier in the campaign, they have parted ways.

There were goodbyes aplenty: having managed another season of overachievement with Alaves, Abelardo bade farewell with a tear in his eye whilst Antoine Griezmann left Atletico Madrid having been their guiding star for five seasons.

Los Resultados

Levante 2-2 Atletico

Getafe 2-2 Villarreal

Sevilla 2-0 Athletic

Espanyol 2-0 Real Sociedad

Valladolid 0-2 Valencia

Alaves 2-1 Girona

Celta Vigo 2-2 Rayo Vallecano

Huesca 2-1 Leganes

Real Madrid 0-2 Real Betis

Eibar 2-2 Barcelona

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis