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Spanish football 2014: La Decima, Atleti reign supreme while Barca's transition continues

Real Madrid finally picked up their 10th European Cup while Diego Simeone created miracles at the city’s other top-flight club.

BACK IN 2012, Iker Casillas was featured on a Spanish TV station. He was asked what trophy he’d select if Real Madrid could only win one at the end of the season.

“La Decima. I do not have to think about it. If you told me know that we would finish 25 points behind Barcelona in La Liga that is obviously not ideal as the domestic competition is very important. But if you tell me that we are going to win La Decima, I would sign for that right now.”

Later that season, Sami Khedira echoed the sentiment.

“When I arrived in Madrid everyone spoke about ‘La Decima‘. It took me a while to understand as I could not speak Spanish initially, but now I know that in Real Madrid, ‘La Decima‘ is everything.”

Everyone at the club desired that elusive 10th European Cup. When Zinedine Zidane sent a magnificent left-footed volley to the roof of Jans-Horg Butt’s goal in May 2002, no one could’ve imagined it would be twelve years before the team would qualify for a Champions League final again. The famine was agonising.

Source: Quan Pham/YouTube

In 2013, Real’s dream came crashing down when they were demolished 4-1 by Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of their semi-final. Robert Lewandowski scored all four for the Bundesliga side, including three in a 16-minute second-half blitz. It was an embarrassment and the death knell for Jose Mourinho. Real got close in the return fixture but not close enough and he was gone shortly after.

His replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, didn’t shirk talk of La Decima – he embraced it. At his unveiling in June 2013, he was defiant.

We all know that La Decima is the big objective, for the club, for everyone. I have that ambition and that responsibility, that is not a problem for me. Every year the coach has a responsibility. To win la decima is such a big motivation.”

And their 2013/2014 Champions League campaign was faultless. They dropped two points in the group stage, scored 20 goals in six games and conceded five. In the round of 16 against Schalke, they won 9-2 on aggregate. Then, it was onto the last eight and a date with Dortmund again. This time, Real swept them aside in the first-leg, essentially confirming their semi-final place then and there. But another German side stood between them and the decider and they had a familiar face in the dug-out.

Pep Guardiola had masterminded many successes over Real during his time at Barcelona but it was Karim Benzema’s early goal that gave Real the narrow first-leg win. As everyone expected, it was tight and balanced on a knife-edge.

Source: Anass Hachadi/YouTube

 

But six days later, Real went to the Allianz Arena and did to Bayern what had been done to them by Dortmund twelve months earlier. Where Lewnadowski scored three in sixteen minutes the year before, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo shared three in eighteen before the Portuguese added a fourth in injury time.

The decider may have ended in a 4-1 win for Real over local rivals Atletico but they needed a 93rd-minute equaliser from Sergio Ramos to force extra-time. From there, it was Real’s to lose such was the psychological blow of conceding so late. And as Ronaldo stroked home from the penalty spot, Real knew. They knew they had reached the promised land.

Spain Soccer La Liga Diego Simeone guided Atletico Madrid to a magnificent La Liga success - their first championship since 1996. Source: Manu Fernandez/AP/Press Association Images

But despite the devastating outcome of the season finale, Atleti had already managed something remarkable. With Diego Simeone, that combative ex-midfielder, in charge, they muscled in on Real and Barcelona’s duopoly and claimed a first league title since 1996.

It was the culmination of an immensely-successful period for the club. There was the Europa League triumph in 2010 and another two years later. Warning shots were fired and they rarely flinched on the big occasion, thumping Chelsea 4-0 in the 2012 Super Cup. At the end of the season, they lifted the Copa del Rey after a dramatic win over Real, a result that ended a 14-year winless streak against their local rivals.

Spearheaded by the incredible goalscoring form of Diego Costa, his able deputy Koke and with an uncompromising defence backed by the magnificent youngster Thibaut Courtois (who conceded 24 goals in 37 matches) between the sticks, Atleti claimed the championship in superb style. Though both Barcelona and Real scored 100 and 104 goals respectively, Atleti finished three points ahead of them both.

Soccer - Copa Del Rey - Final - Barcelona v Real Madrid - Mestalla Stadium Neymar's arrival at Barcelona has coincided with the club being faced with a number of crises. Source: MIGUEL LOPEZ/CORDON/Press Association Images

For Barcelona, signing Neymar cost Sandro Rosell his job after the ‘real’ cost of bringing the Brazilian superstar to the Camp Nou was revealed. But had the season ended with the Catalans winning one more game, the deal would’ve been heralded a masterstroke. But football is a game of fine margins and in many ways 2014 was a year to forget for everyone associated with Barca.

They were hit with a transfer ban after breaking Fifa rules regarding the signing of underage international players. They appealed, it bought them some time and they acted swiftly bringing in a litany of names including Luis Suarez (despite his high-profile indiscretion in the summer). In late-August, their appeal was rejected and they can’t sign any new players until 2016.

The club is mired in transition. Their former master Guardiola is in a different dugout while some of his key players are gone (Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes) and others are clinging on (Xavi). Their star player, Lionel Messi, is to face trial for alleged tax evasion and some are suggesting he may leave Barca behind because of the pending court proceedings.

2014 has been troubling enough for Barcelona. They wouldn’t want things to get even worse next year.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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