In the end it was Tito Vilanova's season and Eric Abidal's too. They became the symbol of the suffering and the success of Barcelona's fourth league title in five years, the feeling in their celebrations.
And yet there was something strange about the 2012-2013 campaign, Barcelona's greatest ever season greeted like a disappointment. The league was won so early that there was something anticlimactic about it and they finished without the injured Leo Messi, without the Champions League, destroyed 7-0 over two legs by Bayern Munich.
They finished too with that nagging sense that something, or maybe many things, were not quite right. Again, Abidal was a symbol: he returned to action 402 days after having undergone a liver transplant, but departed in tears, the promise broken.
Barcelona also missed out on the Copa del Rey, where they had been knocked out by Madrid and were defeated by their rivals' subs in the league. But this was a colossal season for Barcelona, not least given the problems they faced. Javier Mascherano put it well when he noted: "Our coach is not in New York on holiday, you know." Even with illness and injury, even with a short squad that desperately lacks defenders, even with the doubts, they still produced a near perfect 2012: 17 wins and one draw, 2-2 against Madrid. José Mourinho claims that he ended Barcelona's hegemony but Barcelona won the league again, 15 points ahead of Madrid. That's the biggest ever gap between first and second. They equalled Madrid's points record, reaching 100.
Meanwhile, Mourinho and Madrid were unravelling and as each layer fell away, it became clearer that those stories, dismissed as "literature" by the club's president, were largely true. Mourinho gave up the league title before Christmas, which might not have mattered had his team not been knocked out in Europe and however much they sold "success", everyone knew this was not it. The divisions grew more entrenched, the battle bitter, complete with press campaigns, punishments and even a pre-match plebiscite.
When the man assumed to be Mourinho's faithful defender turned it was hard not to think: "Et tu, Pepe?" Alvaro Arbeloa still stood up for his coach but by then he stood alone. And by then, Mourinho had long departed – mentally if not physically.
By then, too, his team had lost the Copa del Rey final to Atlético Madrid.
The Rojiblancos finally defeated their rivals for the first time since 1999. Atlético also took up a place in the Champions League after finishing third, where they will be joined by Real Sociedad, the best team to watch in the second half of the season. European places went to Valencia, who Real overtook on the final day, and to Betis – another team that was brilliant to watch on a shoestring. With Málaga and Rayo both denied Uefa licences, there could still be a European place for Betis's city rivals Sevilla, all the way down in ninth. A team that didn't win a single away game.
Good news for Sevilla, not so good for the league: an eloquent comment on a league that is, at an organisational shambles; a competition where financial crisis grips and no one can compete with the big two. Not just compete: where nobody else even seems to matter. Which is a pity, because beyond Madrid and Barcelona, there are great stories, great games and great players. But for how long? Radamel Falcao has already gone and so have Fernando Llorente and Jesús Navas. They will almost certainly be just the first as a familiar trend continues, a trend in which everyone else's good players depart. The winter transfer window was reality, laid bare. Less money was spent in the whole of Spain than QPR spent on Chris Samba.
This was also the season that was marked by match fixing, after Levante midfielder Barkero accused his team-mates of selling themselves following a 4-0 defeat by Deportivo de La Coruña. Allegations like those are nothing new in Spain; in fact, they have long been indulged as just one of those things, accepted as part of the game. But this time is different; this time it could even be good news. The incoming league president Javier Tebas insisted that he was going to make match-fixing his priority – why he didn't when he was vice-president and de facto president is another question – and launched an investigation, with evidence passed on to the anti-corruption attorney. Maybe this time something will actually be done.
At least the scandal meant that the familiar whiff that surrounds the final day was not there this time; alarm bells had been sounded, players and presidents warned. They were being watched. On the final day, four teams could go down; in the end, Deportivo, Zaragoza and Mallorca did, while the side that stayed up were Celta de Vigo, prompting a proper party, with fans hanging off the crossbar and players disappearing tearfully under piles of bodies, emerging in just their pants.
Iago Aspas's suicidal head-butt in the Galician derby and subsequent four-game ban had not cost his team relegation after all. Instead, he provided the assist that saved them. No wonder he was delighted. No wonder Hugo Mallo was too. And not just because he's the first man up as the Guardian once again hands out the most prestigious awards in the game …
Hugo Mallo finally lived his dream of travelling to the Galician derby to watch his beloved Celta face Deportivo in enemy territory with his mates from the Iago Aspas fan club. Mallo boarded the bus, posed with a For Sale sign superimposed across debt-ridden Depor's badge while his mates gigglingly stuck it up on Twitter, and then sang his way through the journey before heading into the stadium two hours before kick off, ready for war. It was dark but he wore sunglasses and pulled his hood up, shouting for Depor's fans to come and have a go if they thought they were hard enough, singling out his victims and grabbing his crotch, inviting them to get their lips round this until a policeman in riot gear intervened. All of which would be pretty tame, but for one thing: Hugo Mallo is not just a Celta de Vigo fan, he is a Celta de Vigo player.
One man not impressed with Mallo, or team-mate Iago Aspas whose red card in that game cost Celta victory and almost survival was striker Mario Bermejo.
"When you go to bed with children," he declared, "you wake up covered in piss."
Speaking of which …
Least prepared player
Goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz was nowhere to be seen when Athletic Bilbao v Granada kicked off. "I was still in the toilet when I heard the whistle," he admitted afterwards.
Best fan protest
Among the Málaga fans protesting against their Uefa ban was one ever-so-polite supporter wearing a T-shirt that across the top read: "With the greatest of respect, Platini…" And across the bottom concluded: "… I crap on your sainted mother." Sevilla's Biris refused to go to games, but they weren't about to miss the city derby against Betis, finally returning in November carrying a banner that said simply: "sorry for the delay." But no one does protests like Rayo Vallecano do protests and certainly not quite so consistently. They started the season as they meant to go on by vacating the end but for a banner directed at Javier Tebas. "If football belongs to Tebas, let his fucking mother cheer them on," it ran.
Then there game against Real Madrid which didn't take place at all after the floodlights failed. The club published photos of the cables that had been cut, Madrid carried out an impromptu training session in the semi-darkness of the pitch and the match was put off 24 hours, as the president cried "sabotage". There's still no proof that Rayo's fans were involved but outside the stadium they were remarkably calm and there was a cheer when they were told the match was off. Almost like they already knew.
Best fans' wind-up
Sevilla is one of the great Spanish cities but if there is one thing that it hasn't got, and one thing that the rest of Andalusia loves to remind them that it hasn't got, it's a beach. So when Sevilla played at the Rosaleda, Málaga fans spent the game playing with lilos, dinghies, rubber rings and beach balls, sending them bouncing around the stands and laughing at their sea-less rivals.
Best presidential rant
Deportivo's Augusto César Lendoiro, who complained about people making wild match-fixing allegations without proof … by making wild match-fixing allegations, without proof. "Everyone knows that if there is a club that has behaved with total honour, it's Deportivo," he said, which was a good start, coming from the president who lied about the size of the club's debt. "We're absolutely indignant. There were other cases, some of which cost us relegation, but as we didn't have proof we kept our mouths shut.
Almost every game at the end of previous seasons has been fixed for years."
Most excruciatingly embarrassing moment
Step forward, Alex Song. Actually, don't step forw … oh, balls, too late.
Second most excruciatingly embarrassing moment
At the end of the Copa del Rey final, José Mourinho decided not to go up to collect his medal but the assistant coach Aitor Karanka did, leaving King Juan Carlos turning to the Federation president and asking: "So, what, do I give it to this bloke?"
The LFP of course … and someone really needs to invent an irony font for that 'P'. But what have they won it for this time? For putting the weekly free-to-air "general interest" game on three different channels in a single season, shifting the kick off time and day by the week? For spreading games randomly across 10 time slots on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday? For finishing the season after the Fifa cut-off point, almost depriving one relegation-threatened side their best player? No, it's none of those. And it's not for giving somewhere between 10 and seven days warning as to what day games are on either. Hell, that's an improvement.
It's not even scheduling summer games so late that Mallorca's Tomer Hemed scored two lovely goals on two different days in the same game, which will make a nice quiz question one day. No, this year's act of genius was setting matches at 7.45pm and 9.30pm – to ensure that they didn't overlap.
Most democratic club
Real Madrid, where the presidency is open to everyone. So long as you're Spanish, have been a member for 20 years, and have €85m hidden away in your knicker drawer.
Atlético's Madrid's rock band lead singing, former goalkeeping assistant coach Germán "the monkey" Burgos was one man who wouldn't let himself be pushed around by José Mourinho, warning the Madrid manager: "I'm not Tito: I'll tear your head off." Mind you, that's nowhere near as frightening hearing the quiet click of the door closing behind you and turning round to see Levante centre-back and man mountain Sergio Ballesteros standing there in just a towel. "It got a bit messy because it seems I'm not allowed to be there," Ballesteros innocently said of his accidental arrival in the Madrid medical room, where he ended up in fight with Pepe.
"If he doesn't like this sport, he can take up boxing," Sergio Ramos said.
Iker Muniain. Or so said Osasuna centre-back César Cruchaga. "Muniain is shitting himself," Cruchaga declared after the Athletic playmaker and wind-up merchant got a convenient-looking suspension. "He went looking for the fifth yellow to escape having to come to Pamplona."
Least committed player
If Muniain was rumbled, that was nothing compared to Granada's Italian striker Antonio Floro Flores, who told his manager that he was struggling for fitness and wouldn't be available for their game against Espanyol … before heading off to the Sierra Nevada for a spot of skiing. He would have got away with it too if it hadn't been for that pesky fan and his camera phone.
Diego Costa says he never takes his work home with him. Which is probably a good thing. If he did, the Atlético Madrid striker might walk through the door, goad the dog with a stick, surreptitiously elbow his wife out of the way on the stairs, shrugging his shoulders innocently as she lay in a crumpled heap at the bottom, and whisper insults to his children, looking the other way and whistling when they burst into tears.
He would stroll into the living room and dramatically collapse on the floor, rolling round the rug holding his head and appealing for a penalty. And he might even get it too. Diego Costa wears gloves, even with short sleeved shirts.
Presumably to make sure he leaves no prints.
Javi Martínez, who returned to Athletic Bilbao in the middle of the night, clambering over the fence at the club's Lezama training ground and tiptoeing silently towards the building, before suddenly getting bundled to the ground, shouting "It's me, it's me! Javi Martínez!" as the security guard reached for the cuffs. Apparently, he had come to get his boots.
Because getting them during the day was impossible.
Plenty of players have been caught out of position before, but not this badly out of position. And yes, this is Fábio Coentrão taking up his place on the bench, kitted up and ready to go.
Despite not being included in the squad.
Most philosophical player
Álvaro Arbeloa, who warned of the perils of the media, with a little help from Malcolm X and Anton Ego. His first offering was: "If you're not careful, the press will make you love the oppressor and hate the oppressed".
Then he made the words of Ratatouille's culinary critic his own: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
Imagine your favourite player running out with your name on the front of his shirt? Well, that's more or less what Real Sociedad did against Sevilla. They held a draw amongst their members, pulling out 22 members' names to be worn on the front of the shirts, from Cándida López to Jon Igay, from Igor Marín to Alex Townend. "It's time to reveal the best sponsor in our history," ran the campaign "… you."
Not so much a pair of boots as a test for colour blindness. You have to be bloody good to wear these. Luckily, Radamel Falcao is bloody good.
Abidal of course.
The other best story: This one.
As the season came to an end, there were people waving goodbye, emotional moments from the centre of pitches up and down the land. From Eric Abidal to Andrés Palop, Manuel Pellegrini to a sobbing Juan Carlos Valerón, relegated on his final game, one last piece of magic beyond him.
Then there was Granada's captain Manolo Lucena, who bowed out having played for the club in the Third, Second B, Second A and First Divisions.
But away from the cameras, there was another moment every bit as meaningful. As Marcelo Bielsa left San Mamés for the last time, he stumbled across a familiar-looking fan wearing a Bielsa Carajo! badge, as he had done for the past two years. Bielsa asked if he could have the badge as a memento and the fan, naturally, handed it over only for the Argentinian to insist that he couldn't take something for nothing – so he took off his watch and handed it over.
Best exclusive, complete with flashing "EXCLUSIVE!" in big letters
Oh my God, he's buying boxes! The ultimate in jumping the shark. The Mourinho in Ikea story begged just one question: when did Punto Pelota become The Day Today?
Best newspaper column
On the back of Sport is a column entitled "TOP SECRET", where they go deep undercover to break the really big stories, unmasking the powerful and lifting the lid on SECRETS that are, well, TOP. Secrets like José Pinto is the fourth-oldest league champion in history, Jordi Alba has played 100 league games, Radamel Falcao scored the league's 1000th goal and Barcelona have gone 53 weeks scoring. And all those bombshells on the same day. How do they do it?
Best newspaper cover
Another award for Sport, who managed to sum up absolutely everything in a single headline. 24 hours after Barcelona were hammered 4-0 by Bayern Munich, they ran with "Madrid concede four as well." Because that makes it all right.
Best match day programme cover
It's the final of the Copa del Rey and it's Real Madrid versus Atlético Madrid, a huge city derby, a historic occasion played at the Santiago Bernabéu, with 35,000 fans there from each side. You've got Radamel Falcao on one team and Cristiano Ronaldo on the other, plus José Mourinho and Diego Simeone on the benches, so who do you put on the cover? Xavi, of course.
Best post-match interview
When Canal Plus's touchline reporter Ricardo Sierra asked Cesc Fábregas about his slightly theatrical role in Gary Medel's red card after Barcelona's win at Sevilla, the midfielder replied: "he touched my face with his forehead ... if you like, I can do that to you and see what you think."
Best coach's team talk
This one. Paco Jémez invited every member of his squad, the backroom staff and their families into the Rayo Vallecano dressing room for the final team talk of the season, "because we are what we are because of them."
Best coach's daughter
Jémez had a point too. Last year, Pepe Mel declared: "I'd rather my daughter got pregnant than Betis went down," but even that hasn't stopped his daughter Iris supporting her dad through thick and thin. When Betis got a last minute winner against Sevilla, Mel responded with a great big Up Yours to someone, somewhere. To which Iris declared: "If my dad wants to give someone the finger, all I can say is OLÉ! OLÉ! and OLÉ!"
Best coach's protest
Diego Simeone, who came off his bench to remonstrate with the referee for showing a red card. To opposition manager Mauricio Pellegrino.
Best coach's rant
This was the season in which the referees got tough, sending coaches off at the slightest hint of disobedience. "Some people," said Valladolid manager Miroslav Djukic, "haven't realised that Franco's dead."
Longest serving coach
Sacked before he started. Salva Ballesta was on his way to Vigo from Málaga to take over as assistant coach when, about 400km in, he got the call to turn the car round and go home again. Celta's president Carlos Mouriño told him he was very sorry but he was not going to be Abel Resino's assistant coach after all. When fans had found out about Salva's appointment, they had petitioned the club not to employ him.
The reason is simple; they're left-wingers and he's somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, a self-proclaimed "Spanish patriot" who always wanted to meet Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero – the man who led the failed military coup against Spain's fledgling democracy in 1981, bursting into parliament pistol in hand and taking the MPs hostage while his mate Jaime Milans del Bosch rolled onto the streets of Valencia in a tank.
"I have been vetoed because of my Spanishness," Salva complained.
Philippe Montanier took Real Sociedad back to the Champions League despite not always having fans and club behind him, except in the "carrying knives" sense of the word.
Ernesto Valverde turned Valencia round but finally gave up negotiating with the president to stay next year because every time he went back the president was a different man. Pepe Mel continues to do a superb job at Betis, whilst writing best-selling thrillers. Paco Jémez's team are almost as stylish as his elbow-padded jackets and jazzy waistcoats.
And Manuel Pellegrini briefly made Málaga everyone's other team. But it is hard to look beyond Diego Simeone: he has exorcised an entire club, built a team in his image, won three trophies in 18 months and finally defeated Real Madrid for the first time this millennium.
In the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu.
The homage to Catalonia became a homage to Messi and Ronaldo in a brilliant 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in October. Barcelona's 3-2 win at Sevilla in week six was breathless, not least because of a referee with no breath. For 45 minutes Mateu Lahoz blew what he normally blows – nothing – helping the game fly by at a dizzying speed, until David Villa got a 94th minute winner. That, though, was nothing compared to Deportivo-Barcelona two weeks later, a game in which Deportivo scored four but still lost and Barcelona scored five away but still spent the final minutes hanging on with 10 men. Barcelona were 3-0 up after 17 minutes and cruising, but it went from 0-3 to 2-3 to 2-4 to 3-4 to 3-5 to 4-5 with 12 heart-stopping minutes left. It was the game that had everything, including a ludicrously good Leo Messi hat-trick, a yellow card for the least offensive man ever, Juan Carlos Valerón, and the finest own goal you could ever wish to see: Jordi Alba's delicate volleyed lob over his keeper that was part Bergkamp, part Le Tissier.
Speaking of Barcelona, their best performance was probably in Málaga, where they were jaw droppingly good, but if you really wanted excitement this year, the Seville derby took some beating. Sevilla won the first 5-1, Betis won the second 3-2 in the last minute — a game that coach Pepe Mel called "the milk."
In week 32, Valencia scored four goals in 1min 58secs of open play against Málaga and their two games against Real Sociedad were sensational too, the Basques winning both: 5-2 in Valencia, 4-2 at home. In fact, Real were pretty much a guarantee all season. Just reading their scorelines tells a story: three 2-2s, two 3-3s, two 4-2s, plus a 3-2, a 4-2, and a 5-2. Oh, and a 4-3 defeat at the Bernabéu.
Let's start with the obvious shall we? You can take your pick from all of Ronaldo's goals here, and all of Messi's here. Keep an eye out for Messi at San Mamés and Ronaldo's belter against Sevilla at the Bernabéu.
Falcao too was banging them in all year but this cool chip against Barcelona might just be the best. Agirretxe did much the same, and maybe even better, for Real Sociedad against Valencia. Roberto Soldado thumped in a lovely volley against Levante, Beñat scored a superb free kick at Getafe, and Ebert didn't just score one beauty against Mallorca, he scored two. And Jordi Amat scored an own goal against Valladolid in Vallecas … and immediately made up for it with this golazo without even giving Valladolid the chance to touch the ball.
But the best is this one from Griezmann for Real Sociedad against Valladolid. Or it would be if it wasn't for his team mate Alberto de la Bella, who did a Pelé. Only de la Bella scored.
Player of the Year
3rd Radamel Falcao. 2nd Cristiano Ronaldo. 1st: Leo Messi. Just the 46 league goals this season, then.
Team of the Season
GK: Courtois (Atlético)
RB: Carlos Martínez (Real Sociedad)
CB: Miranda (Atlético)
CB: Iñigo Martínez (Real Sociedad)
LB: Filipe Luis (Atlético)
M: Sergio Busquets
M: Xabi Prieto (Real Sociedad)
M: Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona)
S: Leo Messi (Barcelona)
S: Radamel Falcao (Atlético)
S: Cristiano Ronaldo (Madrid)
Subs: Rubén Castro (Betis), Ozil, Varane (Madrid), Negredo, Rakitic (Sevilla), Soldado (Valencia), Piti (Rayo), Isco (Málaga), Illarramendi, Vela (Real Sociedad), Arda, Costa (Atlético).
Finally, a few quotes
"I put the telly on for the last three minutes. They didn't show the game really, they just kept focusing on the bench." – Tito Vilanova nails it.
"We're going to have to make a formal complaint. The referees can't take everything so lightly thinking 'I'll send off two, I'll give a penalty, and no one will care because [it's only Espanyol and] on Tuesday it will be forgotten." – So does Mauricio Pochettino …on the second count, at least.
"Mourinho has put us back where we're supposed to be." – Florentino Pérez.
Hang on a minute, you're supposed to be empty-handed and 15 points behind Barcelona?
"When you look at possession, they didn't dominate us." – Xavi Hernández becomes a self parody after Barcelona's 7-0 aggregate battering at the hands of Bayern.
"At 11pm, I'm asleep." – Spain's kick-off times don't exactly suit Radamel Falcao.
"After losing to Sevilla, our fans couldn't give a toss about Madrid." – Pepe Mel misjudges the mood just a little. Betis beat Madrid and their fans looked like they did give a toss or two.
"We need bollocks." – Manolo Jiménez reverts to type. Besides, Zaragoza's problem was not that they needed bollocks; Zaragoza's problem was that they were bollocks.
"Mourinho always shows his face; he never hides." – Aitor Karanka.
"As soon as Abidal plays a game we'll renew his contract." – Barcelona vice-president Josep María Bartomeu, in December: What was that word again? Ah, yes, valors.
"I wanted to score that goal for all the kids who laugh at my son every day for being an Atlético fan." – For João Miranda, this time it was personal.
"You can be suspicious of Levante-Celta too. There are always suspicions; it cannot just be focused on our match." – Manuel Pablo doesn't so much say that Deportivo are innocent, as say that everyone else is guilty too.
"We can't go stirring the shit." – Levante's Juanlu misses the point entirely. For once, someone has to stir the shit, Juanlu.