Another season of Spain’s Primera División is over. With the champions long since crowned and most of the major issues wrapped up, there were only really two things left to be decided on the final weekend, yet between the battle for 7th and race to avoid 18th, half of LaLiga still went into their final game with something to fight for.
A final fixture list that was neatly divided between matches affecting the Conference League and relegation battles, meant we were treated to a two-part finale to LaLiga 2022/23 with five matches kicking off at 18:30 and only a brief pause to catch breath before five more at 21:00.
Osasuna qualify for Europe
First up was the fight for Europe, or to be more specific, the fight for one place in the UEFA Europa Conference League. Osasuna, Girona, Athletic Club and Rayo Vallecano all stood a chance of getting it. Although, courtesy of their midweek Europa League triumph, Sevilla had an outside shot of being the ultimate party-poopers with victory at Real Sociedad potentially enabling them to pip all of those sides to 7th – an outcome that would have resulted in no Spanish side entering the Conference League given José Luis Mendilibar’s men had already secured Champions League qualification.
That highly anticlimactic possible scenario never looked like coming to pass though with Mendilibar unsurprisingly choosing to rest key players as Sevilla quickly fell behind in Donostia in a game they would ultimately lose 2-1.
The key game was always going to be the one at El Sadar in any case. Osasuna went into it as the only team in control of their own destiny, just needing to beat fellow Conference League hopefuls Girona to clinch 7th place and a return to European football after 17 years.
The day couldn’t have started much worse for Jagoba Arrasate’s side with their captain, best defender and arguably most important player David Garcia needing to be replaced with an injury in just the sixth minute. Osasuna regrouped though and played out an even First Half against Girona with no goals at El Sadar, nor in the matches involving Athletic and Rayo and the four teams were still separated by just a point at the break.
A long, tense Second Half looked to be in store, but the Conference League battle was ultimately decided by a flurry of goals in the opening ten minutes of the second period. The first was scored by Athletic Club at the Santiago Bernabeu with Oihan Sancet firing home from close range to give the Basque side, who had already missed a First Half penalty, a deserved lead and briefly push them up to 7th.
There was barely time for that news to filter through in Pamplona though, before Osasuna had taken matters into their own hands on the pitch. Two breaks down the right in the 52nd and 55th minutes saw Kike Barja and Jon Moncayola both find space to deliver perfect centres that allowed in-form forward Ante Budimir to provide relatively simple finishes as the European party got started in Navarra.
Rayo Vallecano were by this point behind in Mallorca and would ultimately suffer a somewhat too frequent away collapse to lose 3-0 in Andoni Iraola’s final game ending their hopes of European football.
Substitute Reinier Jesus did grab a goal back for Girona in the 75th minute to add an element of jeopardy to the closing stages, but Athletic were now only drawing in Madrid, meaning two goals still needed to go against Osasuna in order to deny them European football.
Arrasate’s men successfully saw the game out and Conference League qualification and the potential for ties against the likes of Juventus and Aston Villa is a fitting reward for the excellent work that has been done in Pamplona, not just this season, but over a number of years.
Late Almeria penalty relegates Real Valladolid
When it comes to raw tension and final day drama, nothing quite beats a tight relegation battle and that is something that LaLiga most definitely served up this season.
We reached matchday 38 with Elche and Espanyol having already had their relegations confirmed but six teams were still at risk of joining them in next season’s second tier with just two points separating 18th placed Real Valladolid and Cadiz in 13th at the start of the night. There were a multitude of possible permutations that could potentially have relegated any one of the six teams, yet much would depend on events at the Estadio José Zorrilla where two of the relegation candidates met.
To some extent, the stage was perfectly set for José Bordalás’ Getafe, needing just a point to guarantee safety, to come and grind out a draw. Their approach was never going to be anything but cautious and a goalless First Half of few chances with the visitors enjoying just a 21% share of the ball made it clear what kind of night we were in for in Valladolid.
There was more action elsewhere. Valencia made a horrific start, falling behind after just 54 seconds at the Benito Villamarin. Cadiz meanwhile, took the lead at Elche in the 10th minute through Gonzalo Escalante and took that 1-0 advantage into the break after the hosts had two goals ruled out by VAR.
At the RCDE Stadium, where Espanyol bizarrely refused to play in the first minute of their clash with Almeria in protest at refereeing decisions they believe had cost them at least a shot at final day salvation, what would turn out to be the game of the weekend was already heating up. The fit again El Bilal Toure headed Almeria into a rare away lead in the 10th minute only for the hosts to level a few minutes later.
It wasn’t until the 42nd minute that the first truly seismic goal at the bottom went in though, with Celta Vigo, 17th at the start of the night, taking the lead against Barcelona through their young star Gabri Veiga. One of the curiosities of the situation was that all six teams knew a win would save them and that goal was enough to send Balaidos into a frenzy whilst denying Marc-André ter Stegen a clean sheet record in the process.
At the interval, Real Valladolid remained where they’d started the night, in 18th, the position nobody wanted to end up, with Valencia rather than Celta now the side just above them.
As the stalemate continued at a packed out José Zorrilla, fans of a Pucela persuasion were now increasingly desperate for some positive news elsewhere and it didn’t take long to come. Ronaël Pierre-Gabriel’s first goal in LaLiga in the 49th minute in Barcelona, gave Espanyol a 2-1 lead and all of a sudden Almeria were in the relegation zone.
They’d climb out again with a goal from Adri Embarba only nine minutes later but a cracking strike from teenager Luca Koleosho restored Espanyol’s advantage and restored Almeria’s place in the bottom three.
By this point, the six-way scrap for safety was starting to narrow down a bit. Gabri Veiga’s cross-come-shot somehow crept in to give Celta a 2-0 lead on the champions with the 21 year old scoring his second of the night, ending a nine-match goal drought in an otherwise outstanding season. That effectively secured survival for the Galicians who’d opted to leave usual saviour Iago Aspas on the bench due to a persistent injury.
Valencia levelled things up in Seville with 21 year old Diego Lopez scoring another important goal for Los Che. Cadiz were also only drawing by this point but both sides were now closing in on safety regardless of their results, given the situation elsewhere.
Still no goals in Valladolid though, but for a while it didn’t matter. With Almeria losing, a draw would be enough for both Paulo Pezzolano and José Bordalás and the prospect of both teams being in a position to celebrate come Full-Time was starting to look an increasingly likely outcome.
And then came the kind of hush, that can only signal bad news on such nights. Word of a VAR review and finally a penalty awarded for Almeria at the RCDE Stadium changed everything once more.
There were almost shades of the final day of last season, when an Espanyol side with nothing to play for, surprisingly sent Granada down with Jorge Molina missing a late penalty for the Andalusians. Only this time, the outcome was different.
Embarba, up against his old club, held his nerve to send young keeper Joan García the wrong way and level things up at 3-3. 88 minutes on the clock and Almeria with their heads above water again as Real Valladolid fell back into the bottom three once more.
They were nearly out of it barely a minute later, with Gonzalo Plata fizzing a fierce effort from the edge of the penalty area a matter of centimetres the wrong side of the upright. It was a goal that would have changed everything but often it’s the finest of margins that separate success from failure in sport and so it would prove on a painful evening for Real Valladolid fans as they watched the team fail to make any more serious inroads into a resolute Getafe defence in Stoppage Time as the game ended goalless.
By this time, all those home supporters could do was pray and hope for a late miracle at the RCDE Stadium but salvation was not coming as Almeria successfully saw out nine minutes of added time to the delight of their coach Rubi and a small group of travelling fans who had made the long trip up to Catalunya.
Real Valladolid were down. Getafe, Almeria, Cadiz, Celta Vigo and Valencia were safe.
Pezzolano, who replaced Pacheta in April and initially delivered positive results, was left to reflect on “a dressing room that is destroyed”.
“I did everything in my power since we arrived” he continued. “We suffered a lot physically, many injuries at key moments and they cost us points”.
A Day of Goodbyes
It was adiós to Real Valladolid after just one season in the top flight, although they’ll be strong candidates to bounce straight back next year such is the advantage relegated teams have in the second tier.
Sunday was also a day of goodbyes with some of LaLiga’s most legendary and iconic figures from the 21st Century bidding farewell to the Spanish top flight.
That included a player who was playing league football in the very first year of this century, before many of his current teammates and opponents had even been born.
Joaquín Sánchez, one of the most popular figures in Spanish football, finally hung up his boots at the age of 41 (he’s 42 next month), playing an hour against former club Valencia before being replaced and leaving the pitch to an almighty ovation at his beloved Benito Villamarin.
While Joaquín’s departure had been anticipated and was announced several weeks ago, Karim Benzema kept Real Madrid fans, not to mention his Coach, guessing until the very last moment.
As recently as Saturday, Carlo Ancelotti claimed to have “no doubts” about the Frenchman’s future adding “The internet is not reality. I agree with Benzema. The club’s legends should finish their careers at Real Madrid. This is what the fans and the club want. The club, the fans and I think so.”
Benzema had himself moved to quash speculation about a potential move to Saudi Arabia earlier in the week in an interview with Marca.
Therefore it came as something of a surprise to everyone when a Comunicado Oficial announcing the legendary striker’s departure was released a matter of hours before kick-off in Real Madrid’s final home game against Athletic . After 14 successful seasons and 24 trophies, Benzema is going and needless to say he got a richly deserved send-off at the Bernabeu on a day which also saw Marco Asensio feature for Los Blancos for the final time.
There were emotional scenes around the country, not least at the Reale Arena where Asier Illarramendi left his boyhood club, eight years after returning for an injury-ravaged second spell in Donostia.
However nothing quite compared to the scenes in Palma de Mallorca where one Antonio Mateu Lahoz refereed his final Spanish league game and left the pitch in tears through a guard of honour as players from both teams applauded one of Spanish football’s most recognisable figures. LaLiga won’t be quite the same without you, Mateu.