This weekend, the 2020-21 LaLiga title race will be decided in a dramatic final round of fixtures.
Barcelona’s defeat to Celta Vigo has trimmed what was once a four horse race down to two local rivals. Real Madrid will host Villarreal at the Alfredo Di Stefano while Atletico Madrid travel to Ronaldo Nazario’s Real Valladolid. On paper, the odds heavily favor the current leaders. Though Valladolid have everything to play for heading into the final game of the season, they are fighting for their lives in the top flight and haven’t won a game since the beginning of March.
Villarreal, meanwhile, are wrestling for a spot in the European spots and have a competitive record against Real, even when they are the visitors. Nonetheless, Atleti know that one slip up hands the defending champions the advantage and, as they nearly discovered last weekend, no match is a given this season.
Since the advent of the 38 game season in the 1980s, this will be the 11th time that LaLiga has gone to final day with it all to play for. Atleti will have fond memories the last time they were in this position, winning their first league title in 18 years with a 1-1 draw against Barcelona in 2014. Real Madrid, having been involved in alot more of the last day tussles than Atleti, have a much more mixed history.
Real have won three league titles on the final day, the last coming three years ago when Cristiano Ronaldo’s early goal against Malaga sent Los Blancos well on their way to a 33th league title. Preceding that, there has been a lot of heartbreak.
The very first final day title race in the 38 game era was in 1991-92. Real Madrid had topped the league table from gameweek 7 right the way through to the final game of the season. They had avoided defeat against their main title rival, Barcelona and needed either a win or to match Barcelona’s result to secure a sixth league title in seven seasons. Standing in their way was midtable Tenerife, managed by former Real midfielder Jorge Valdano. Early goals from Fernando Hierro and Gheorghe Hagi meant Barcelona lead over Athletic Bilbao wasn’t counting for much in the league title race, even when Quique Estebaranz was able to snatch a goal back for Tenerife.
It seemed certain to be Real’s day right up until the 77th minute. A mazy run from Tenerife ended with a dangerous cross in front of Real Madrid’s box. Confusion between Rocha and Buyo ended with the ball in the back of Real’s net and all of a sudden the title was slipping away from Madrid. From the succeeding kickoff, Tenerife managed to isolate a Real defender high up the pitch and pushed him into a rather stunning decision, booting a high ball towards Buyo in goal. Caught off his line, Paco was only just able to slap the ball away, but only into the path of the on-running Pier Lugi to tap home for 3-2.
Pier was sent off towards the end of the game, but the damage was already done and Real Madrid butchered a league title they seemed destined to win. The following season, the roles reversed a little as Real Madrid took control of the title race late on. With three matchdays to go, Barcelona were defeated in dramatic circumstances to Celta Vigo meaning Real’s scoreless draw with Osasuna was enough to take them to the top of the league. Two successive wins followed but the gap remained just a single point when matchday 38 kicked off on a July afternoon.
Los Blancos were once again paired with Tenerife, a chance to right the terrible wrongs of the previous season. Despite the small gap, Cyruff had already publicly ceded the title to Madrid as well as star midfielder Michael Laudrup when Barcelona themselves had lost Tenerife. Surely Real Madrid wouldn’t let it slip again.....
Some famed Barca officals suggested that Tenerife be awarded the Cross of St. Jordi while Guardiola promised honorary socis status. That summer, Tenerife were given a roaring reception when they played the Gamper trophy at the Camp Nou. Real weren’t involved in 1993-94, but Barcelona were once again the beneficiaries as Depor draw to Valencia once again handed La Blaugrana final day glory.
Following those early nightmares, the record begins to smile a little for Real. In 2002-03, Los Blancos inflicted some familiar 90s heartbreak on Real Sociedad, snatching the crown on the final day after La Real lost to Celta Vigo and Madrid disposed of Athletic Bilbao. The fifth occasion that LaLiga went to the final is by far the most infamous.
Barcelona, having won the two previous titles preceding 2006/07, dominated the early proceedings winning ten of their first 14 matches. Heading into the Christmas break, they were four points clear of Real Madrid and two ahead of second-place Sevilla, who had enjoyed a historic start to their campaign. The new year saw brutal collapse in form for the Catalans and a uptick for Real. Slowly the gap closed.
Although the title went to the final day, it was all but decided the preceding week. Barcelona played Espanyol at home while Real Madrid travelled to Zaragoza. Across the hour and a half, first place changed hands several times with Barcelona going behind and then Real Madrid going behind and Barcelona coming back to lead Espanyol. In the final 60 seconds of regular time, Ruud Van Nistelrooy levelled the game against Zaragoza at almost exactly the same time Raul Tamudo scored the most iconic goal in Spanish football history and became Espanyol’s all time top goalscorer.
Espanyol-supporting columnist Tomás Guash probably described the drama best in his post match report: “That was the fuck of the century – an orgasm screamed out with all your might.” Guash would write a book on Tamudo that summer, while sales of t-shirts and scarves with Tamudo’s number 23 on them skyrocketed.
AS, meanwhile, went with the notable safer headline of “Thanks Espanyol” while Mundo Deportivo prayed for a Real-style miracle to work against Los Merengues during the final matchday. It nearly happened too, Mallorca were in front right up until the 67th minute when Jose Antonio Reyes equalized and Madrid turned the score around once again to secure a 30th Spanish crown.
For Real Madrid, this brings us practically to the present day. Outside of 2016/17, they let the title slip in 09/10 and 14/15 while the brave fightback in 2015/16 proved too little, too late. It’s been a tale of heartbreak or glory so far and that is unlikely to change this weekend.