Football is back, though not everyone in Catalonia will be thankful that it is”... that is how I started my last article on Catalonia’s leading clubs in July. And things only got worse in the makeshift end to the most unusual season in the history of football. Barça lost the league to Madrid and were dumped out of the Champions League 8-2 by Bayern in Lisbon – no, that’s not a misprint, and yes, it was only a one-legged tie – while Espanyol were relegated to the Second Division after 27 years in the top flight, the final nail being hammered into the coffin at the Camp Nou of all places, adding insult to injury. Girona did briefly look like providing the one bright spot for Catalan football by making the play-offs to La Liga, only to fall at the final hurdle.
Following the humiliating defeat to Bayern, head coach Quique Setién and sporting director Eric Abidal were shown the door, former player Ronald Koeman being announced as Setién’s replacement shortly afterwards. This was followed by the arrival of another ex-player, Henrik Larsson, to join Koeman’s coaching staff. Barça fans may be briefly appeased by these appointments, if nothing else for the Dutchman’s glorious associations with the club, given that he scored the winner in their first CL triumph at Wembley in 1992. His record as a club coach with the likes of Valencia, Southampton and Everton makes less promising reading, however. And while the one redeeming feature of Barça’s past season was surely the breakthroughs of youngsters Pujol and Ansu Fati, the real story this summer has been the saga over Messi’s apparent departure. It now appears that the Argentine superstar is willing to stay at the club, given that his only alternatives were for someone to pay his astronomical buyout clause or take Barça to court, something he vowed he would never do to the club of his life. Whether Koeman and co will be able to conjure the necessary form and commitment out of the best player the world has ever seen next season is another matter.
Sadly, and as some fans had feared, Espanyol have proven to be a lesson for how things can go badly wrong if your club is bought out by an international businessman. Chinese owner Chen Yansheng went pretty much AWOL after his announced plans to bring the club Champions League football within three seasons of taking over, the periquitos instead dropping meekly into the second tier of Spanish football. Despite breaking the club’s transfer record by first spending €10.5 million on forward Matías Vargas, then more than €20 million on Raúl de Tomás, and further additions in the guise of Adrián Embarba for €10 million, Leandro Cabrera for €9 million, and Fernando Calero for €8 million, the team could not find the necessary form to stay in La Liga. To make matters worse, the financial outlay in transfer fees and wages could prove a problem in Spain’s second tier next season, when incomings will be drastically reduced without the television rights money from the top flight. Espanyol’s new head coach to help them bounce back to the First Division is at least a man with experience in the lower leagues – Vicente Moreno Peris. He began his coaching career on the bench at Jerez before getting Gimnàstic de Tarragona promoted to the Second Division. These last three seasons Moreno Peris was coach of Mallorca, who he helped rise from the Second B Division to the top flight in successive seasons, before being relegated alongside Espanyol last season.
True to the word of head coach Pep Lluís Martí, Girona did get themselves in the position they wanted by the end of the season, making the play-offs to win a spot back in La Liga. They had everything in their favour after seeing off Almeria with home and away wins, and minnows Elche having seemingly knocked out the more dangerous threat of 3rd-placed Saragossa in their play-off. But Girona failed to heed the warning signs, as Elche did to them exactly what they had done to Saragossa, drawing 0-0 at home in the first leg before snatching a late winner in the away leg. Things had been looking good for Girona, needing just one goal at home against an uninspired and frankly very poor-looking Elche outfit, but then disaster struck in the 61st minute when the league’s top scorer and Girona’s talisman striker Cristhian Stuani made an unnecessary late lunge at an Elche defender and was sent off. Despite his long protestations, the Uruguayan had no defence for this actions and it cost Girona dear. Elche subsequently grew in stature with 11 men versus 10 and secured promotion after a basic error by Girona goalkeeper Asier Riesgo (never a more appropriate name) allowed the visitors to sneak a late winner with a backpost header. A tragic and farcical end to what had been a promising season.