Following on from Girona’s Segunda División play-off Final victory over Tenerife on Sunday, we can draw a line under a long campaign with every major issue now resolved. Here’s our 2021/22 Spanish football season review featuring all the key ups and downs from LaLiga, the Segunda División and the newly formed Primera and Segunda RFEF.
It was a campaign which started with the return of supporters and the departure of Leo Messi, sparking fears that LaLiga was increasingly losing its shine. It ended though with Real Madrid reigning in Spain and Europe again with plenty of memorable moments along the way as Real Betis won the Copa del Rey in their hometown, whilst women’s football broke new ground with Barcelona Femení attracting record-breaking crowds that topped anything we saw for a men’s game in Spain in 2021/22.
|Champions League qualifiers||Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla|
|Europa League qualifiers||Real Betis, Real Sociedad|
|Conference League qualifiers||Villarreal|
|Relegated||Alavés, Levante, Granada|
LaLiga 2021/22 didn’t serve up a great title race like the one we saw the previous year. Barcelona’s inability to seriously challenge was clear from the get-go and they were already all but out of the race by the time Xavi replaced Ronald Koeman in the autumn. Despite having strengthened last summer, Atletico Madrid’s title defence was one of the worst in recent memory with only Sevilla seriously threatening to push Real Madrid and even they suffered a miserable second half of the season to fall well out of contention as Los Blancos ultimately won the league by a comfortable 13 point margin.
Real Betis and Real Sociedad spent periods of the season in the top four with La Real leading the league for five matchdays early on. Both though would fall just short of Champions League qualification to finish as the best of the rest for the second season in a row. Villarreal also repeated their 7th place finish from 2020/21 and will be Spain’s first ever UEFA Conference League participants next term.
It was a good season for the promoted clubs who all survived. Pre-season relegation favourites Rayo Vallecano stunned everyone by winning 8 of their opening 9 home games whilst Espanyol comfortably slotted back into mid-table on their return to the top flight. It was tighter for Mallorca who plumped for veteran coach Javier Aguirre in March and beat the drop on a dramatic final day with victory at El Sadar. Alaves and Levante were already down by that point, but Granada surprisingly joined them in dropping into the Segunda División with Jorge Molina’s penalty miss cruelly costing them on the final weekend as Cádiz also won to complete their great escape.
|Promoted||Almeria, Real Valladolid, Girona|
|Relegated||Alcorcon, Fuenlabrada, Real Sociedad B, Amorebieta|
There was no shortage of final day drama in the Segunda División either. Eibar, Almeria and Real Valladolid went into the final weekend jostling for the two automatic promotion positions. Eibar had finished each of the previous 18 matchdays in the top two and were on course to go up as they headed into Stoppage Time level at already relegated Alcorcon with the top three tied on 81 points. Then, disaster struck. Giovanni Zarfino’s 91st minute goal for the Madrid side knocked Eibar down into the play-offs and bumped Almeria up from 3rd to 1st as the H2H picture changed to hand the title to the Andalusians.
That goal also confirmed an immediate return to the top flight for Real Valladolid whilst Eibar had to regroup and go again in the play-offs. The Basques responded well, winning their Semi-Final 1st Leg at Girona only four days later but Michel’s side bounced back to win 2-0 at Ipurua and seal a Play-Off Final place for the third year in a row. Meanwhile in the Canary Islands, a titanic derby clash was taking place as Tenerife edged out Las Palmas over two legs to tee up a showdown with the Catalans. After a goalless 1st Leg at Montilivi, Girona laid to rest the ghosts of five previous play-off failures by winning 3-1 at the Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez López to seal a return to the big time.
At the bottom, it was a bad year for the Madrid clubs, with Fuenlabrada joining Alcorcon in dropping down into the Primera RFEF. There was not much joy in the Basque Country either as minnows SD Amorebieta and Real Sociedad B both went down after just one year in the second tier.
|Group Winners||Racing Santander, Andorra|
|Promoted||Racing Santander, Andorra, Albacete, Villarreal B|
|Relegated||Atletico Sanluqueno, Betis Deportivo, Costa Brava, Sevilla Atletico, Talavera de la Reina, Tudelano, UCAM Murcia, Valladolid Promesas, Zamora, Extremadura (Dissolved)|
The structure of the Spanish lower leagues underwent a revamp in the summer of 2021 with the new Primera RFEF becoming the third tier. It would feature 40 clubs, split into two groups, with the champions of each winning promotion, whilst the 2nd to 5th placed sides would enter the play-offs to settle the final two promoted teams.
The sleeping giants of Racing Santander and Deportivo La Coruña competed in Group 1 with Guillermo Fernández Romo leading Racing to the title by an 8 point margin from 2nd placed Depor. In the other group it was FC Andorra, owned by Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who made history by clinching promotion to the second tier for the first time.
The play-offs took place in Galicia with the stage seemingly set for Depor to also win promotion. Both of their games were scheduled for the Riazor and while they breezed past Linares 4-0, a 2-1 Extra Time defeat against Albacete consigned them to another season outside the top two tiers while the Castilla–La Mancha based club bounced back to the Segunda at the first attempt. In the other Final, Villarreal B defeated Gimnastic Tarragona in Vigo to claim the final spot in the 2022/23 Segunda Division.
|Group Winners||Pontevedra, Osasuna B, Numancia, Córdoba, Intercity|
|Promoted||Pontevedra, Osasuna B, Numancia, Córdoba, Intercity, Mérida, Ceuta, La Nucía, Murcia, Eldense|
|Relegated||Aguilas, Andratx, Ardoi, Arosa, Atletico Levante, Atletico Pulpileno, Badalona, Calvo Sotelo Puertollano, Cayon, Ceares, Cerdanyola del Vallès, Ejea, Europa, Huesca B, Las Palmas Atletico, Llanera, Marchamalo, Mensajero, Móstoles URJC, Naxara, Panadería Pulido, Pena Sport, Salamanca, San Fernando, Tamaraceite, Toledo, Tropezon|
The newly created fourth tier, felt broadly similar to the old Segunda B, except with five regionalised groups rather than four and automatic promotion for the champions of each one with five additional promotion places up for grabs via the play-offs.
Group 1 saw Pontevedra gain promotion but it wasn’t a good year for the other larger clubs as SD Compostela could only finish 8th while Salamanca UDS were surprisingly relegated to the Tercera División RFEF where their B team were operating this season. Group 2 saw Osasuna B only lose twice on the way to the title while Real Sociedad’s C team made it into the play-offs highlighting the extraordinary depth of young talent in Donostia. Group 3 was won by Numancia, a second tier club as recently as 2019/20, and they’ll be hoping this is just the start of their climb back up the Spanish football ladder.
The same could be said of Cordoba, who were the most impressive side in the Segunda RFEF this season, finishing a massive 20 points clear of their nearest rivals in Group 4. Meanwhile Alicante-based CF Intercity were the surprise winners of Group 5. The play-offs also took place in the province of Alicante but ended in disappointment for Hércules, the city’s biggest club, who like Depor in the Primera RFEF failed to make the most of home advantage.
The other three play-off qualifiers from their group went on to win promotion including another big name in the shape of Real Murcia who will be hoping to kick on and push for promotion to the Segunda Division in the coming years. The other two play-off victors came from Group 4 with Merida going up along with Ceuta which will see third tier football return to the autonomous city on the north coast of Africa for the first time in more than 50 years.
Copa del Rey
|Losing Semi-Finalists||Athletic Club, Rayo Vallecano|
The Copa del Rey’s recently revamped format continues to deliver and the 2021/22 edition produced plenty more shocks and surprises as none of the top four in LaLiga managed to progress into the last four of the Copa.
We had two tense Semi-Finals featuring some wonderful goals as Goncalo Guedes’ long-range screamer ensured Valencia got the better of Athletic while Betis edged out Rayo despite an unbelievable strike from Bebé in the 2nd Leg at the Benito Villamarin.
That set up a hometown Final for Real Betis and it was one that they certainly had the better of but Los Che held firm to take the game to penalties. In the end, Betis got the result that they and in truth many neutrals wanted, as Joaquin got to lift the cup again at the age of 40, after fellow Betis fan Juan Miranda had converted the winning penalty to spark wild celebrations in the green and white half of Seville.
|Losing Semi-Finalists||Ebro, Leioa|
The sense that something may just be building again at Cordoba was backed up by their success in the Copa Federación. Andalusian derby victories over Linense, Juventud Torremolinos and Xerez helped them on their way to the Final where they defeated 5th tier Guijuelo to win the trophy for the first time.
|Runners Up||Athletic Club|
|Losing Semi-Finalists||Barcelona, Atletico Madrid|
The Supercopa returned to Saudi Arabia with an entertaining Clasico Semi-Final the pick of the games as Real Madrid defeated Barcelona 3-2 in Extra Time. Athletic defeated Atleti in the other Semi-Final but the Basques couldn’t defend the trophy they won in Seville in 2021, losing 2-0 to Los Blancos in the Final – the first of three trophies in the 2021/22 season for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
Spanish Clubs in Europe
|Real Madrid||Champions League Winners|
|Villarreal||Champions League Semi Finalists|
|Atlético Madrid||Champions League Quarter Finalists|
|Barcelona||Europa League Quarter Finalists|
|Sevilla||Europa League Round of 16|
|Real Betis||Europa League Round of 16|
|Real Sociedad||Europa League Knockout Round play-offs|
Real Madrid’s remarkable run of comeback victories and late drama was the headline act from Spanish involvement in Europe. Few sides have ever had a tougher run to the Final as a Karim Benzema-inspired Madrid knocked out French champions PSG, defending European champions Chelsea and English champions Manchester City, coming back from the brink of elimination in every round. Thibaut Courtois was their hero in the Final with some brilliant saves as Vini Junior’s 59th minute strike sealed a 14th European Cup win for the side from the Spanish capital.
Villarreal were the only other Spanish club who can look back on their European campaign with any major sense of satisfaction. Surprise wins over Juventus and Bayern Munich thrust the Yellow Submarine into the Champions League last four where Unai Emery’s side briefly gave Liverpool a scare with two 1st Half goals in the 2nd Leg to level the tie before the Premier League side took command once more.
Elsewhere, there was disappointment in both the Champions League and Europe League for Barcelona with the two European exits raising questions about the extent of their progress under Xavi, despite much improved league results and performances under his guidance. Atletico Madrid saw off one Manchester club but couldn’t beat the other as they exited the Champions League in the Quarter-Finals. Meanwhile the likes of Sevilla, Betis and Real Sociedad were left to wonder what might have been in the Europa League which ended, in Seville, with two surprise finalists in the shape of Rangers and Eintracht Frankfurt.
|Primera Iberdrola Winners||Barcelona|
|Primera Iberdrola Runners Up||Real Sociedad|
|Relegated from the Primera||Rayo Vallecano, Eibar|
|Promoted from the Segunda||Levante Las Planas, Alhama|
|Copa de la Reina Winners||Barcelona|
|Copa de la Reina Runners Up||Sporting de Huelva|
|Supercopa Runners Up||Atletico Madrid|
|Spanish Clubs in the Champions League||Barcelona (Runners Up), Real Madrid (Quarter-Finalists), Levante (Round 2)|
Barcelona were again a class above the rest in the female game, putting together another extraordinary league campaign which saw them win all of their 30 fixtures, scoring 159 and conceding just 11. They completed a second domestic treble in three years by winning the two cups with 6-1 and 7-0 victories in the Finals highlighting the extent of their superiority.
There is though, at least the sense that Real Madrid are growing and one of the defining images of the 2021/22 Spanish football season was the sight of Camp Nou packed to the rafters for the Champions League quarter-final clash between Barça and Los Blancos. The 91,553 in attendance not only set a record for a female game anywhere in the world, but topped the highest mark for any football match in Spain this season.
There were even more a few weeks later when Barcelona defeated Wolfsburg in the Semi-Finals but just to prove that this Barça side is human, they were out of sorts and slumped to a 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the Final as the French club won the trophy in Turin.
It wasn’t all good news for women’s football in 2021/22. Rayo Vallecano, one of the traditional powerhouses, were relegated amidst anger at the way the side has been managed and allowed to decline by club president Raúl Martín Presa with the controversial appointment of coach Carlos Santiso drawing criticism from across the football world.
There is also the impression that the RFEF has still not grasped the opportunity that exists to really grow the women’s game. Their decisions to hold the Finals of the Supercopa and Copa del Rey, in tiny stadiums in Las Rozas and Alcorcon respectively, were baffling at a time when it is clear that big crowds can be attracted to watch women’s football.
The all-conquering Barcelona side will form the bulk of a strong Spanish national team when they target Euro 2022 glory in England this summer and success could spark a fresh wave of interest in the female game in Spain. The RFEF would be wise to take note.