Eighteen days in the spring defined and decided the season. Finally, the inevitable happened and the curtain came down on the rest of Spain, leaving Real Madrid and Barcelona to fight it out for absolutely everything. The clásico series felt like the obvious conclusion, two-and-a-half weeks that acted as a microcosm of the season. The best two sides became the only two sides, league, Champions League and Copa del Rey their own private battleground, and as much of the spotlight was shone off the pitch as on it – where there were accusations and acrimony, formal complaints and a complete lack of class. Where it got genuinely pretty horrible. Just as it was always going to.
Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey at last. Iker Casillas finally got his hands on the trophy that he had not yet won. Curiously, Raúl and Guti, Madrid's other veterans now playing abroad also finally won a domestic cup – the only club competition to have evaded them. José Mourinho, a force of nature for which the Spanish were unprepared, was the undisputed winner. His long and very public battle with the club's director general Jorge Valdano finally was won this week when Valdano was sacked. Mourinho now has greater power than any coach in Madrid's history. There is a whole new structure at the Bernabéu which offers hope – as well as proof – that Florentino Pérez's project definitively failed. The challenge now is to finally defeat one of the greatest sides ever.
And that is the thing: if Mourinho was the winner and while Madrid finally got their hands on some silverware, they were also the losers. And, in part, they had nobody to blame but themselves. In the end, Barcelona got the better of it. Barcelona collected the league. Not least because Madrid, oddly, did not seem to be trying to stop them collecting it. Not on the pitch anyway.
Barcelona celebrated by throwing peppers into the crowd – symbolic of their cojones. This was not always the most sparkling of seasons but it was the hardest; before Christmas they had been graceful, smooth and precise, after Christmas they showed the competitive spirit that is too often overlooked. They had spent the year being constantly attacked and had withstood some of the bitterest and wildest of accusations. They were the worst of travellers, turning up late in Pamplona, but the best of them too. Never before had a team picked up 46 points on the road.
Europe was theirs too. And while the world jumped on the clásicos as all the evidence they needed to try to sentence both clubs forever, caring little for all that had gone before or would occur after, Barcelona eventually got past Madrid, Leo Messi's goal at the Bernabéu finally providing something that lived up to impossibly high expectations. Impossibly high, that is, until the final when Barcelona produced a performance that even the most rabid Madridistas could not contest. Even if Iker Casillas did insist: "We would have won the final too."
As for the rest of Spain there were no expectations at all. No one had conceded eight goals in a game for 14 years. Almería did it twice and went down. Herculés joined them. And so did Deportivo – however much they deserved it there was a sadness about seeing Super Depor slipping away. Málaga, Levante and Sporting turned round their seasons to survive relatively comfortably and Mallorca almost went down despite never being in trouble. A single goal on the final day would have seen the team celebrating survival five weeks from the end slipping into the Second Division. They were one of six that could have gone down. Osasuna were in danger on the final day but finished ninth – the best illustration of a league split into very distinct classes.
With Espanyol unable to hold on and selling players in the winter window, there were European places for Sevilla, Athletic and Atlético, whose success from last season was a distant memory and who appear to be disintegrating: Quique Sánchez Flores has gone. Diego Forlán, Sergio Agüero and David de Gea will not be far behind him. And above them the were Valencia and Villarreal, easily the best of that other league – genuinely good sides who belie suggestions that the whole of La Liga is weak. Trouble is, Valencia in third were 21 points behind Real Madrid. And that's an improvement on last season.
The season was condensed into 18 days in the spring, where only Real Madrid and Barcelona existed and Mourinho dominated the agenda. This was his season, but it ended up being Barcelona's season, however much Ronaldo's extraordinary Pichichi success was repackaged as the trophy they really wanted. Season? No. This was Barcelona's era. And only one team can expect to compete with that. By the end Madrid and Barcelona had the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey between them, the top scorer award and the goalkeepers' Zamora, too. Eighteen days decided and defined the season – 18 days where only they existed and where they fought it out for every single award going.
Well, not quite every one ...
Teenager Kiko Femenía was making his First Division debut for Hércules and things were not going well – easy passes went astray, he could not control the ball and his manager, Esteban Vigo, was screaming and swearing at him from the touchline. Anxiety gripped and the kid was going to pieces, when team-mate and proper mate Francisco Rufete stepped in, warning his coach off, telling him to leave Femenía on the pitch with a no-nonsense "fuck the match", and spending the rest of the game prowling the touchline shouting encouragement and reminding him to breathe.
Swiftest fall from grace
Hércules again. Royston Drenthe went from hero to villain in the time it takes him to drive round Alicante – and when you ignore red lights and hit 180 kmph, that's not long. The man who responded to the question "how often do you have sex?" with the inspired line "with my wife, you mean?" was a superstar at the Rico Pérez, with his own fans in yellow jumpers, I HEART ROY on them, dreadlock wigs and blacked up faces. Trouble was, soon that was not the only thing they were painting, fans splashing "Bastard," "Son of a bitch", "Hércules is not a circus", "Clown", "mercenary" and the chilling: "Found you", along with the initials "KKK" , across the walls of his house after he went awol. On the final day, relegation long-since confirmed, coach Miroslav Djukic said: "I'd like to thank all my players, except one." If anyone doubted that Royston Ricky was the one, president Valentín Botella announced that the team had gone down because of Drenthe. And not because of the unpaid players, the lack of running water at the training ground, or the fact that they should never have come up in the first place.
Most ironic chant
Atlético Madrid fans chanting "Gurpegui, you're a junkie". While puffing away on the funny fags. Mind you, they were outdone by Mourinho, who stood on the touchline and screamed, "you never change" at Asier Del Horno as the full-back ran through the array of sneaky tricks he learnt at Stamford Bridge. Under Jose Mourinho.
Last season, Mallorca's hated coach Gregorio Manzano moaned that supporters rarely turn out, noting: "If the game is at 10, it's too cold; if it's at seven, it's wet; and if it's at five they're still eating their paella." So when he returned in charge of Sevilla, Mallorca welcomed him back … with a gigantic paella.
Almería's players posed in new suits, delivered soon after relegation was confirmed and made by "Drop", while Racing Santander's shirts were sponsored by purveyors of pork products Palacios, the word "Chorizo" splashed across the front in huge letters – and chorizo is slang for thief. But nothing compares to Unicef – the organisation that helps children. When it is not running international football and conspiring to hand Barcelona the European Cup.
Forget Sergio Busquets – what makes his acting bad is that it is so bad. If you want good acting, it has to be Valencia's David Navarro. Having already left one Athletic Bilbao player bleeding, he smashed Fernando Llorente with an elbow full in the face and then fell to the floor, dead. A stretcher came on and took him off. For a minute you thought it might actually be serious, so still was he lying, so motionless, so convincingly had his eyes rolled back in his head. You genuinely feared for him, even as the replay confirmed that he had not been touched. A couple of minutes later he was running back on, having handily avoided the yellow card, everything intact. Except his credibility.
The most hotly contested of awards. Jilted lover Marca named Manuel Pellegrini the "Worst" thing about Malaga's match with Levante, after he took them to their first home win of the season and off the bottom in his first ever game in charge. AS deleted a player from their photo to "prove" that Dani Alves was offside. El Mundo Deportivo managed to turn Madrid's six-goal victory in Valencia into a "slap in the face for Mourinho". And Telemadrid brought the values that infuse their coverage in other spheres to football, calling Pep Guardiola the "fire starter", blaming him for fans throwing bottles at reporters – and a lot more besides.
But Valencia newspaper Super Deporte were not going to let the Madrid media have a monopoly on myopia or those buggers from Barcelona beat them for bias. How dare anyone say their player is a nasty, cheating thug? Even if he is. During Zaragoza-Athletic they saw Llorente jump with his arm and pounced. Jumped up with his arm, note. That's: jumped up with his arm and lightly brushed the face of the man marking him. Not: elbowed two players in the face, drew blood, left one needing stitches and then acted dead despite there being nothing wrong with him. Having had plenty of previous. "The good guy mask slips," howled Super Deporte, "revealing Llorente's hypocrisy". "Llorente breaks a defenders nose," they continued. And they were right too. If for "nose" they meant "thigh". And if by "break" they meant "strained." Oh, and if by "Llorente" they meant "no one at all, it just kind of happened in a totally unrelated play at a totally different time."
Best match report
The one they never meant to write. On the night that Real Madrid did the unthinkable and lost to Osasuna, virtually handing the title to Barcelona, those typing www.marca.com were greeted by a simple message: "Forbidden Error."
Best free gift
Sport offered a Barcelona knife and super soft Barcelona slippers. Perfect for anyone wanting slip silently away from a stabbing.
Lluis Mascaró, the Sport columnist who described Barcelona versus Madrid as "the final battle between good and evil", wins this award. "The Copa del Rey final is the most important that Barcelona have played in their whole history. None of the 25 [Cup] titles won in 109 years of competition have had the transcendence that this has, in sporting and media terms," he wrote the morning of the Copa del Rey final. "The Copa del Rey is, without doubt, the least important of the three that Real Madrid and Barcelona are playing for this season. The fact that Mourinho's team have won it does not make it transcendental," he wrote two mornings after the Copa del Rey final.
Most chilling threat
Walter Pandiani, who noted of Cristiano Ronaldo: "In my country he would have had to visit the dentist by now."
Least convincing explanation
Deportivo's goalscoring goalkeeper Dani Aranzubia had everyone scratching their heads when he claimed: "I just did what I see my team-mates do." But even he could not compete with the Spanish Football Federation. When Real Madrid formally complained about a report on their website that had noted that Mourinho was watching referees very closely, accusing the Federation of bias and deliberately turning officials against Madrid, the RFEF passed the buck like Xavi passes a football. "It was", they said, "the work experience girl."
Most shameless attempt to divert attention from your rivals' success
Real Madrid's tragically transparent decision to parade their Copa del Rey round the streets of Madrid on the day that Barcelona clinched the league title – much to the cringing embarrassment of the players. Even Gonzalo Higuaín called it a paripé. An act.
It had taken 17 years for Madrid to get their hands on the Copa del Rey and barely 17 minutes for it to slip out again, when Sergio Ramos did this.
Rubinos Pérez turned to Málaga's goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, snapping: "You're very bad: why don't you try learning to come off your line properly?" Which would not have been so unusual but for one thing: Rubinos Pérez was the ref.
Even better than Villarreal's Christmas greeting was this beauty, in which Levante's players sing a big thank you to their fans. The video closes with a simple message: sorry for being out of tune, we will make it up to you on the pitch. And the thing is, they did too. Which brings us nicely on to …
Ten trophies from 13, three league titles and two European Cups in three years. The ability to resist the constant bombardment and then, suddenly unexpectedly, give some back. And still win. Pep Guardiola really should be manager of the year. But he is not. And nor is the chain-smoking, potty-mouthed people's poet Manolo Preciado – the man with the moustache you could hide a badger in, a voice so low it makes the floor vibrate, and a 40-a-day habit – even though he had the league's best record against the big two, ended Jose Mourinho's nine-year unbeaten league run at home, saved the league's second cheapest team and added fortune telling to his talents, concluding that now infamous spat with Mourinho and his staff by snapping: "I hope Barça put five past you."
No. It's not Pep and it's not Preciado. It is Luis García. Spain's youngest coach and the poorest too – so poor that he dare not use ProZone because it costs €3,000 a time and he has not got €3,000. Levante's entire budget is less than Messi's wages; their sporting director admits: "Agents run away from us: we have to wait until the end of the market, see which players can't get a club and sign them"; they began pre-season training with a 10-man squad; 15 of their players have been relegated before; and their back four had a combined age of 134. But still it didn't matter to this genius, armed with erotic pictures, motivational messages and a can of paint. During one training session, García made his players climb a wall, shut their eyes and fall backwards into the waiting arms of their team-mates. At first, they were convinced they were going down. Amazingly, they did not.
In terms of a single performance there was nothing to compare to Barcelona's 5-0 destruction of Real Madrid. Except perhaps their 3-1 destruction of Manchester United. But great games need two teams. A last-minute long-ranger gave Racing a 3-2 win over Sevilla – which led to new owner Ali Sayed going absolutely bonkers up in the directors' box while José María Del Nido sat stoneyfaced and comically uptight faced beside him. Sevilla-Barcelona, described by Del Nido as "two superpowers fighting it out", was intense and out of control, 21 players screeching round as Fredi Kanouté glided among them, too cool for it all. Valencia-Málaga had seven goals, three equalisers, three red cards, two mad managers and a ref abusing the players, going from 0-1 to 1-1, from 1-2 to 2-2, from 3-2 to 3-3 and then 4-3, the kind of match where Valencia fans were grateful that whipping out your hankies and waving them signals both bloody brilliant and bloody awful. Barcelona-Villarreal was stunningly precise, fast, intense, and technically impeccable. But for drama and sheer intensity nothing beat Osasuna-Sevilla, rounded off by the winner of the next award:
Probably the best assist ever. Camuñas chased a long ball up the left wing, cut inside, got punched in the face, wobbled momentarily, lifted his hand towards his head, carried on into the area, blood streaming from just below eye, provided the pass to win the game and turned to celebrate with the fans, pointing at his face, before trotting back to the centre circle, shrugging off attention and then, feeling a little giddy, hitting the turf. It was the 89th minute of the 36th week and Osasuna had come back from 2-0 down, and a player with a broken ankle, to beat Sevilla 3-2 with goals in the 87th and 89th minutes, dragging themselves five points clear of the relegation zone and to safety. "See this?" Camuñas said pointing at his bloody and bandaged head and the then at the fans going bonkers, "this is what Osasuna are all about."
This one. Just look at Pedro go
First, a nod for Dani Aranzubia's nod: the header that made him Depor's seventh top scorer, even though he's their goalie. Leo Messi's second against Villarreal was impossibly intricate and brilliantly finished, playing two first-time one-twos with Pedro before lifting it over Diego López from a tight angle. Messi also scored a playground style goal against Real Sociedad, running across their six-yard box past four men before turning it back into the other corner. And that wasn't even the best one he scored that day: this was. Few touches have been as neat as Agüero's to score against Mallorca. Speaking of scoring against Mallorca, Getafe's third against them was wonderfully worked. Giuseppe Rossi hit this shot hideously hard. Reyes struck this curler ridiculously well. And Tino Costa belted in a beauty against Getafe. But the winner just has to be this half-way line, first-time beauty from Cani ¡Golazo!
Best goal celebration
Marcelino's hop, skip and fall on your arse was fun. Unai Emery reacted to his team scoring by ripping off his jacket before, throwing it to the floor and proceeding to stamp on it like Yosemite Sam, turning round, booting something across the grass, slumping on to the bench with a thud and throwing his arms in disgust, a look of utter contempt on his face. But this award has to go to serial celebrator Antoine Griezmann, who upset Getafe fans by kissing the Basque flag on his Real Sociedad shirt, stood saluting next to a security guard, and hopped over the advertising boards, dashed to the car parked on the running track and piled in with his excitable team-mates, pretending to beep the horn, waving, punching the air and grinning like simpletons as if they'd just won Family Fortunes.
Julio Baptista turned round Málaga's season with nine goals in 11 games after joining in the winter transfer window and Ivan Rakitic and Gio Dos Santos had a huge impact at Sevilla and Racing respectively. Mesut Ozil finished the season with more assists than anyone apart from Messi and his relative absence from the clásico series was baffling, especially after he almost single-handedly dragged Real Madrid into the league game with Barcelona at the Bernabéu. At €15m, he was an absolute bargain too. But Spain's best bit of business has to be Felipe Caicedo – the man who brought Levante survival on and off the pitch. The scorer of 13 goals, and the holder of the best goals per shots ratio in the league, he is on course to become the first player Levante have paid for in four years. They will exercise the €1m option-to-buy – and immediately sell him for a tidy, life-saving profit.
Fourth: Giuseppe Rossi. Spain's outstanding player outside the big two. Not that we're likely to be able to say that for much longer.
Third: Xavi Hernández. An average of over 125 passes a game, for goodness' sake.
Second: Cristiano Ronaldo. Top scorer this season. Top scorer of any season. Even Marca's stubbornness in hanging on to that extra goal for him ended up not really mattering as he racked up 40 goals in the league, nine ahead of Messi - two more than Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sánchez, the previous record holders. He was running at a goal every 72 minutes. Incredible.
First: Leo Messi. 31 goals, 20 assists, and brilliance every single week. And that's just in the league. Top scorer in the Copa del Rey and top scorer in the Champions League – for the third year running. Utterly undisputed, even as people seem desperate to dispute him. Every time a "yeah, but" is thrown his way he overcomes it. Messi can do everything. The most complete player around, the extraordinary thing about Messi is how ordinary it has all become – he is making the brilliant routine. Never plays badly, even when he plays "badly".
Team of the season (trying perhaps a bit too hard not to just pick Madrid and Barcelona players)
Víctor Valdés (Barcelona); Dani Alves (Barcelona), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), Ricardo Carvalho (Real Madrid), Marcelo (Real Madrid); Xabi Prieto (Real Sociedad), Xavi (Barcelona), Gabi (Zaragoza), Cazorla (Villarreal); Ronaldo (Madrid), Messi (Barcelona).
Subs (a long list): Caicedo and Ballesteros (Levante), Prieto (Real Sociedad), Rossi, Borja, and Bruno (Villarreal), De Guzman and Nunes (Mallorca) Reyes and Agüero (Atlético), Abidal, Busquets and Iniesta (Barcelona), Ozil and Alonso (Madrid), Castro and Botía (Sporting), Mata and Soldado (Valencia), Kanouté and Negredo (Sevilla), Iraola and Llorente (Athletic)
And finally, some of the year's choicest quotes …
"The other 18 clubs should get together and kick Barcelona and Madrid out. We won't mind competing in a different league to them" – Sevilla president Jose María Del Nido. They already do.
"This wouldn't have happened if I was here" – president Enrique Cerezo returns from Miami, where he is celebrating Enrique Cerezo Day, to find another fine mess at Atlético Madrid. Like nothing stupid ever happens on his watch.
"Now, there are even complaints over decisions that are right" – Sergio Ramos. "Now"?
"Madrid are a side with no personality. They just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out. Their approach was not right. Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse" – Alfredo Di Stéfano socks it to Jose Mourinho.
"The philosopher has kicked me out. I don't know what his problem with me was. Whenever I walked into a room he walked out again … maybe he was scared of me" – Zlatan Ibrahimovic (remember him?) attacks Guardiola. As if anyone would be scared of the 6ft 3in, 13-stone striker with a death stare and a mean temper whose agent says "could slap me into next week" and who practices karate.
"I don't mind the paparazzi following me about but having a go at my swimming trunks is a bit harsh" – Andres Iniesta gets used to life post World Cup.
"Guardiola has put a target on me, in classic fascist style," Eduardo Inda attacks the Barcelona coach armed only with his black pot and a neck of solid brass.
"You need to understand algebra to beat this Barcelona side" – Manolo Preciado. Algebra? Trigonometry?
"Not even the Nazis did what this mad woman [the judge] is doing to me. All that's left is for them to call me black, or Muslim" – Betis's charming "owner" Luis Oliver keeps things in perspective.
"The dressing room is broken" – Hércules manager Miroslav Djukic could have added a Redknapp-esque "literally" and he would still have been right.
"People are saying I'm an actor, well maybe I'll give up on football and go into the theatre. He assaulted me and it's a clear red card. If Jesus Christ wasn't liked by everyone. I've got no chance" – Dani Alves defends himself. Six months before that Pepe incident.
"Mourinho gets a cold and it's bigger news than us going nine weeks unbeaten" – Santi Cazorla nails it.
"I don't know how or why they organise football in this country. But one thing's for sure: they don't do it for the good of the fans" – so does Quique Sánchez Flores.