La Liga’s best-of-the-best from a thrilling 2014-15 season.
Player of the Season – Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
One could’ve predicted with the arrival of Luis Suarez and the blooming of Neymar, that Leo Messi’s influence at Barcelona could wane. Add to that the prospect of Messi reverting back to his Rijkaard Era right-wing role to accompany the central-based Uruguayan, and it would’ve made sense. That is, if we weren’t talking about the greatest footballer to ever walk the planet.
43 goals and 18 assists in 38 league appearances is merely scratching the surface of the Argentine’s impact. Armed with two world-beating forwards to supply, Messi fully harnessed his playmaking skills, even developing a deadly new in-swinging cross from his right-flank position. Even with Cristiano Ronaldo’s ridiculous Pichichi-winning 48-goal tally, there was only one best player in Spain this season: Lionel Messi.
Young Player of the Season – Jose Luis Gaya (Valencia)
While the rise of Jose Maria Gimenez at Atletico Madrid deserves mentioning, it was Valencia’s 20-year-old Jose Gaya who sparkled most over the full campaign.
With last summer’s departure of left-back Juan Bernat to Bayern Munich, Valencia came into the season with a hole in defense begging to be filled. Los Che have shown an incredible amount of faith in their youth academy over the years, and Gaya is one of latest and most emphatic examples. His 32 starts in one of La Liga’s stingiest defenses speaks volumes of his impact. A Spain call-up is surely just around the corner for the defender.
Manager of the Season – Nuno Espirito Santo (Valencia)
Valencia have spent the better part of the last 20 years as one of Spanish football’s seminal teams. Finishing outside of the top-four is largely unacceptable for Los Che, which is why last season’s eighth-place finish resonated through so harshly. It was the first time they had failed to qualify for Europe in 16 years.
Enter former Portuguese goalkeeper Nuno Espirito Santo, who took over Los Che’s vacant managerial post left by Juan Antonio Pizzi. Behind Nuno, Valencia turned into a defensive force. Getting rid of some dead wood, and building a small, committed squad seemed to be the ticket.
A steady defense that included mainstays Nicolas Otamendi, Shkodran Mustafi, Jose Luis Gaya and La Liga’s standout net-minder Diego Alves, led to Valencia sporting the league’s third-best goals-against record, as well as earning a Champions League berth.
While his counterparts Luis Enrique and Carlo Ancelotti had stellar years, it was Nuno who completely transformed the identity of his team into something new and special.
Transfer of the Season – Antoine Griezmann (Real Sociedad to Atletico Madrid for €30 million)
You could have Luis Suarez or James Rodriguez or Toni Kroos here. All would’ve been fine choices, but there’s just something about the little bleached-blond, worm-stached Frenchman Antoine Griezmann that flutters the heart. It could simply be that he’s amazing.
The 24-year-old, brought to Atletico Madrid over the summer from Real Sociedad, was poised for a breakout season. He delivered in spades: his 22 league goals were third to only Ronaldo and Messi. And these were goals his team desperately needed. With the departure of last year’s leading scorer Diego Costa, much of Los Colchoneros’ goalscoring burden was destined to fall on newboy Mario Mandzukic.
While the Croatian did moderately well, scoring 12 goals, it was Griezmann who really set the league alight. Though he’s still developing, this kid is a superstar in every sense of the word.
Flop of the Season – Gerard Deulofeu (Sevilla)
Up until this season, Gerard Deulofeu’s rise seemed a foregone conclusion. He’s a La Masia graduate with blazing speed and sharp technical ability whose 2013-14 loan-spell at Everton hinted that, while still green, his ceiling is enormous. A subsequent loan deal to Unai Emery’s Sevilla felt like a perfect move for the youngster.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. In an admittedly quality Sevilla side, Deulofeu wilted, only scoring one Liga goal in 10 starts for the Rojiblancos, often not even making the reserves bench. In an article with The Guardian this week by Sid Lowe, Emery said Deulofeu “doesn’t have the maturity or capacity for sacrifice yet.”
It’s hard to argue with the manager, who just yesterday led his side to their second straight Europa League title. If Deulofeu ever comes anywhere near his sky-high potential, he’ll have to start looking inward. Because what was expected to be a breakout year for the 21-year-old turned out to be an utterly forgettable one.
Match of the Season – Real Madrid vs Sevilla (May 2, 2015)
While there were many riveting matches throughout the long, raging La Liga season, it was early May’s encounter between Sevilla and Real Madrid that had everything. The Rojiblancos came into the match riding a 34-game unbeaten streak at the Sanchez Pizjuan, while the visiting Merengues were trying to keep pace with league-leading Barcelona.
The match began really picking up steam around minute 30 in a moment of controversy. Sevilla’s Grzegorz Karwowski temporarily left the pitch to receive medical attention following a clash of heads with Sergio Ramos only to remain off the pitch for enough time to allow Cristiano Ronaldo to score twice. But with the threat of halftime looming, Sevilla’s fortune shifted as Ramos brought down Aleix Vidal inside the box, issuing a penalty kick that Carlos Bacca slotted past Iker Casillas.
The second half then exploded into dramatics, as a returning-from-injury Gareth Bale provided a brilliant cross to find Ronaldo at the far-post, who athletically headed the ball beyond Sergio Rico.
10 minutes later, Vicente Iborra scored to cut Madrid’s lead to one. The rest of the match was an onslaught from Unai Emery’s men, though they would ultimately fail to equalize. The result meant that Madrid stayed two points adrift of La Liga’s summit, while Sevilla’s unbelievable home-run met an abrupt and emphatic end.
Goal of the Season – Saul Berjon (Eibar vs. Levante from Oct. 4, 2014)
Amidst all of the Messi, Ronaldo and James wonderstrikes, there was one gem that elevated itself above all, and it happened on a rainy October night in Basque Country.
Down 1-2 at home, Eibar were in need of a momentum shift against Levante. Having been fouled just to the left of Levante’s penalty area, Javi Lara sent a looping freekick toward the top-of-the-key in hopes of finding a free Saul Berjon waiting to unleash his fury.
As the ball carried toward the right side of the box, Berjon began winding up to connect, and he did, in destructive fashion. Berjon sent the volley zooming past keeper Diego Marino and into the upper ninety of Levante’s goal within the blink-of-an-eye. It wasn’t a traditionally attractive goal, but it was beautiful in its own devastating way. See for yourself. The game ended 3-3.
Passes on the floor are divine, freekicks run the highlight sector and tiki-taka masterpieces deserve reverence. But there just something about a disregard-for-everything-in-its-path piledriver that can move mountains. Sadly, the memory of Berjon’s goal will forever be soured by Eibar’s subsequent collapse and relegation.