Saturday, July 7, 2012

The real disturbing news of the season was Real Madrid – contrary to expectations, they had terrible season and finished at 9th place. Hard to tell why: the same team with the same coach won the two previous seasons. It was not aging squad – it was just in its prime. May be the absence of Netzer? Hardly – he was getting old and going downhill. Whatever it was, Real was a disaster, and the remedy was familiar all over the world: the coach was sacked. Two titles in two years? So what? Did he win THIS year? Good bye Miljanic. Good bye Breitner too.

Good fortune came to other clubs: Athletic Bilbao finished third. The Basques looked like they were coming back to the very top of Spanish football, may be beginning a new and long waited strong spell.

Athletic reached the final of the UEFA Cup, reached the final of Copa del Rey, and finished with bronze medals the championship. They were not ripe for success yet, for they ended 7 points behind the 2nd placed team, not contenders for the title at all, but improving. May be next year?

The race for the title was between two teams and was tough: a single point divided champions from vice-champions. The silver boys finished with better goal difference and were the points equal, the champions were to be different. But point is a point and Barcelona lacked that point.

Rinus Michels evidently sparked the Catalans, but still came a little short. May be there was no more to be extracted from this squad. Cruyff and Neeskens were the grand masters, but both were a bit bellow their performance from few years back. Rebuilding of the team already started and was painful – somehow no great new player emerged, and veterans were still essential. One big problem was goalkeeping, where the crisis was acute. Michels managed to extract one last spurt, one last run, but it was clearly ailing team. At the end, it was in the mouth of Cruyff – he seemingly was immune to firing, so revolution was possible only if he decided to leave.

The unexpected fall of Real Madrid and the well known handicaps of Barcelona opened opportunity for Atletico Madrid. And they did not miss it – Atletico fought and managed to edge Barcelona and win the title.

Here they are before the start of the season in 1976.

And in May 1977 – champions! Not a single fan of Atletico would say that this team was no good and I prefer Atletico than Real, but this is not a champion squad. Not a team going to build a dynasty. It was more similar to Barcelona of that season, not like Real. Like Barcelona, it was experienced, stable, but dangerously aging squad. The movers and shakers were almost the same, who won the Spanish title in 1973. Replacing them was a problem, for somehow no new great player was emerging. Like Barcelona, Atletico depended heavily on their foreigners – Ayala, Leivinha, and Luis Pereira. By now everybody in Spain knew them well and countermeasures were well in place. The three were stars indeed, but it was amply telling that none was invited to play for their national teams anymore. For this squad it was the last hurray, and may be they were just lucky this year – the slip of real Madrid left only Barcelona, a fight of pretty much equal veterans. As good as a victory was, it was quite clear success was not going to be continued.

Spain appeared stilled, but there was at least somebody suggesting brighter future: Mario Kempes, playing for Valencia, was the best goalscorer of the season with 24 goals.
Already a star, he was going up – superstardom was to come in 1978. Kempes, unlike the rest of venerated foreigners in Spain, was younger, just approaching his best years.