Lionel Messi, Real Madrid and La Liga End-of-Season Awards

Michael CernaCorrespondent IJune 3, 2013

Lionel Messi, Real Madrid and La Liga End-of-Season Awards

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    The 2013-14 La Liga season is now over and a new era of Spanish football looks to be under way.

    Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid failed to defend their title after the Portuguese manager lost control of his team, bringing an end to his time in Spain.

    Debut coach Tito Vilanova led Barcelona to the greatest start of any team in the history of La Liga, nearly becoming the first-ever undefeated team in Spain.

    La Blaugrana were so dominant that La Liga's title race was one of the most boring predictable in a long time—for fans of every team besides Barca at least.

    Fortunately for Spanish football fans, the battle for European qualification proved to be one of the most exciting and surprising of any European league.

    Many stars left Spain, while others arrived to prove their value and maintain the league level of talent. Some great players started to decline while other youngsters began to emerge as potential superstars.

    After an exciting season that saw two new teams qualify for Europe, it is time to highlight the best and worst players, coaches, teams and moments of the campaign.

Biggest Transfer Flop: Alex Song

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    Alex Song certainly did not justify his €19 million transfer fee, but it would be harsh to criticize the former Arsenal man too much.

    Tito Villanova is more to blame for the Cameroonian's relative failure at Barcelona than the player himself after misusing and under-valuing him all season.

    The first-year coach never really figured out how to use the top-class midfielder and ended up wasting one of Song's prime playing years in the end.

    The African was grossly misused in the first half of the season—mistakenly tried as a center-back, always without a true leader beside him—and never got consistent playing time in midfield as the season progressed.

    When Song did play, it was usually either against a club lower in the table or without the first-choice midfield to help him develop.

    Next season it would be wise for Vilanova to figure out how to better use his new enforcer and realize that he brings a lot to the team, even if he is a very different player from Sergio Busquets.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Emre Belozoglu (Free)—The Turk has loads of talent but never got comfortable at Atletico Madrid and found his way back in Turkey midway through the season.

    Obafemi Martins (Free)—Like Emre, the Nigerian failed to make it through the season but hurt Levante far more than Emre did Atleti when he left.

Transfer of the Season: Patrick Ebert

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    By season's end, Real Valladolid were made to look like geniuses for taking a risk on Patrick Ebert, but I think they were as surprised as anyone by the German's ability.

    Ebert's once promising career has been wrecked by injuries. The midfielder is such a health risk that even mid-table European teams were unwilling to take a chance on him, even on a free transfer.

    Valladolid ended up unearthing a real gem as Ebert partnered with Oscar to form one of the best attacking-midfield duos in all of Spain.

    There probably was not a single midfielder who was more important to his team this season, and Ebert could be rewarded with a big paycheck and a transfer to a bigger club this summer.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Diego Lopez—Two years ago I said that Diego Lopez was an elite keeper who would always go underrated until he played for a top club. Real Madrid finally provided him with a stage to shine, and he proved to be elite from day one.

    Geoffrey Kongdobia—Raphael Varane is not the only superstar in the making to have come from Lens. Sevilla found one of the best young midfielders in Kongdobia.

    Aritz Aduriz—The Spanish striker returned to his former club expected to play second fiddle to Fernando Llorente but ended up being the first choice and Marcelo Bielsa. His gratitude came in the form of 20 goals and six assists.

Loanee of the Season: Thibaut Courtois

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    Atletico Madrid's world-class defense (one of the absolute best in Europe) made Thibaut Courtois look a bit better than he actually is, and only devout followers of La Liga will recognize that.

    That being said, no one can deny that the Belgian has enormous potential and is one of the best young keepers in the world.

    Courtois still makes a lot of mistakes reading balls into the box and his first-read ability is poor, but his lightning-quick reflexes often makes it hard to even notice his faults .

    Courtois' initial judgment on shots is still greatly lacking, but his decision-making continues to improve and his physical abilities are sensational.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Pizzi—Depor's loanee led all of La Liga in cross completion percentage and was electric against even the best teams in Spain. The Portuguese star looked world-class this season, and Atleti will welcome their loaned-out star back with welcome arms.

    Joel CampbellReal Betis will finally play in Europe next season, but their business dealing with Arsenal might be the better news from this season if Joel Campbell is a taste of things to come from that partnership.

Controversy of the Year: La Liga Matches Fixed?

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    La Liga is already greatly criticized for its huge imbalance at the top and dreadful unwillingness to aid any club apart from Barcelona and Real Madrid.

    Now the league has another huge controversy to deal with after a game between Deportivo La Coruna and Levante was placed under investigation.

    According to ESPN, Deportivo La Coruna president Augusto Cesar Lendoiro said that, while his team was not guilty of any wrongdoing, he knew that match fixing had taken place in La Liga for years.

    Last year's last-minute win for Rayo Vallecano had many wondering if the final day of play was fixed to punish Villarreal—a team renowned for standing up to the powers that be.

    The small Madrid side were again accused of match fixing this year, but they are certainly not the only team being investigated—or at least questioned—at the moment.

    If anything incriminating does come from these claims, La Liga may be unable to recover as they are already being rocked by gargantuan financial issues.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Jose Mourinho vs. Iker Casillas—Some say Mourinho unnecessarily targeted a legend, while others say no player is bigger than the club or coach. The incident divided the locker room, and everyone suffered in the end.

    Barcelona says goodbye to Abidal—The club that prides itself on its values decided not to renew fan favorite Eric Abidal despite being in great need of defensive reinforcements.

    Actions speak louder than words, and many expected better from the club.

    Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani abandons Malaga—The Malaga project started unraveling last summer after just two years of investment when its billionaire owner stopped paying players, coaches and even transfer fees to other clubs.

    UEFA was forced to act, and a team destined for the Champions League was crippled by sanctions that will once again tear the team apart, beginning with Manuel Pellegrini's exit.

Most Surprising Team: Rayo Vallecano

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    Coming into this season, most expected Rayo Vallecano to to be battling relegation until the final day of play, just like last season.

    Not only did the Madrid-based side lose their best attacking player—Michu—and fail to adequately reinvest money from his sale, the team also failed to address its porous defense.

    The defense remained one of the worst in La Liga, but that was about the only thing that played out as expected.

    Michu's absence was quickly forgotten after the success of highly touted academy star Leo Baptistao, but the success of their new coach was even more impressive.

    Paco Jemez challenged his team by imposing an exciting brand of attacking football while taking plenty of tactical risks—including frequently playing with three men at the back.

    Los Vallecano finished behind only Barcelona in terms of possession and never changed their philosophy, even against the best teams in Spain.

    Fans were praying for their team to simply stay in the first division for one more year but found their team finishing one win shy of playing in Europe.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Real Sociedad—After watching truly fantastic football being played this season and seeing a handful of young players develop into stars, one has to wonder why La Real were not already battling for a Champions League spot.

    Real Betis—Benat failed to maintain his first-half form, but the Sevillans showed that they are far from a one-man team and will now get to play in the Europa League as a result.

Most Disappointing Team: Sevilla

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    The effect of this highly disappointing season could be felt in Sevilla for a very long time.

    Despite having one of the best starting XIs in the entire league this season, Sevilla once again failed to qualify for Europe and will likely lose at least three of their best players in order to make up for the financial loss.

    Diego Lopez was already sold to Real Madrid for less than €4 million while both Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo will leave so they can finally play in the Champions League.

    Geoffrey Kondogbia looks set to leave and the rest of Sevilla's top-class midfield could seek European play as well.

    With the best winger in Spain, a world-class striker and keeper, one of the best holding midfield duos in the league and an extremely versatile midfield, there is no reason Sevilla should have been this disappointing.

     

    Honorable Mention

    Real Madrid—Jose Mourinho had the most expensive squad in all of Europe but could not control his players and had his worst-ever season as a manager.

    Cristiano Ronaldo failed to keep his form up at season's start while the rest of his attacking players were wildly inconsistent all season long—most notably Mesut Ozil, Angel di Maria and both strikers.

    Madrid failed to make 90 points and would probably have finished third if their local rivals had the same depth that Los Blancos were afforded.

Most Disappointing Player: Angel Di Maria

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    In January I questioned whether or not Angel di Maria had a future with Real Madrid after yet another inconsistent season that saw him fail to maintain form for more than a couple of matches.

    The Argentinian finally got fit after a tough injury suffered in 2011, but he still proved to be the most unreliable star player in the entire league.

    Di Maria may be world-class every few games, but his average, most frequent form is not only short of world-class, it is barely average.

    At times the South American was a menace against opposing defenses, blending great pace with vision, but more often than not the creative winger wasted his chances in front of goal and was too selfish in the final third.

    Some think Di Maria still deserves one more chance at Madrid—at least as a bench player—but the long-rumored transfer of Gareth Bale to the capital will likely see the club cash in on the 25-year-old this summer.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Iker Muniain—The Basque prodigy started his campaign by getting banned from the national team after losing his cool in the 2012 Olympics and then had a very forgettable season at the club level.

    Gerard Pique—Now at 26 years old, the time has come for Pique to stop relying on Carles Puyol and finally become the leader of Barcelona's defense. He certainly failed to do that this term.

    Pepe—Injuries certainly played a part in the Portuguese defender's poor season—and subsequent loss of trust by Jose Mourinho—but getting outplayed by a teenager was far more worrying for the 30-year-old.

Comeback Player of the Year: Ignacio Camacho

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    After such inconsistent play from Mario Suarez and Gabi, one has to wonder if Diego Simeone wouldn't like to have Ignacio Camacho back at the Calderon.

    The Atletico Madrid reject always showed great potential in the capital but never had the trust of his coaches and was eventually shipped out to Malaga after being labelled a failure.

    Under the patient tutelage of Manuel Pellegrini, the 23-year-old Camacho blossomed into one of the elite central midfielders in Spain and will now have the club battling potential suitors off this summer.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Patrick Ebert—He still suffered a few injuries, but when he was on the pitch, there were very few midfielders in better form than Ebert.

    Carlos Martinez—La Real's academy star did not even play a full season but was the best full-back in the country during his time. The 27-year-old is proving that and is rewarding the club for not giving up on him.

Biggest Loss of the Season: Javi Martinez

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    We all knew losing Javi Martinez was going to hurt Athletic Bilbao—even if they were able to retain Fernando Llorente—but I think many were surprised to learn how great his impact really was.

    Last season Martinez proved to be the key player in the Basque defense after shifting to center-back and proving to be very solid at the position—even though he was not world-class and far more effective as a defensive midfielder.

    Athletic Club were never able to replace the young Spaniard's presence in midfield, and their central defense proved to be one of the leakiest in the league.

     

    Athletic Crippled, La Liga Suffers

    Martinez's exit greatly hurt Bilbao, but it also hurt La Liga as a whole. He became just another player that was too good for a league that has only two teams that are able to consistently attract world-class players.

    The 24-year-old had already bordered being a world-class midfielder, but he did not have the supporting cast or team prestige to prove it.

    Bayern Munich won the bidding war for Martinez—making him their most expensive transfer ever—and repaid him with a historic treble.

    The midfielder helped turn Bayern's central defense into the best in Europe and one of the greatest of the last decade.

    Meanwhile, La Liga lost yet another incredibly talented player because there are only two teams capable of retaining such stars.

     

    Honorable Mention

    Santi Cazorla—Last season I ranked Santi Cazorla as the best midfielder in Spain and third-best player overall.

    The perennially underrated midfielder took Malaga to new heights during his final season in Spain, but the internal problems at that club allowed Arsenal to buy Cazorla at a cut-rate price.

    The former Villarreal star took the Premier League by storm in his debut season, and La Liga lost another truly elite player because of finances.

Biggest Upset: Granada 1-0 Real Madrid

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    Real Madrid's final loss of the season was essentially the nail in the coffin for their hopes of retaining their title.

    Madrid had already lost four matches, but they were still very much in the title hunt, even with Barcelona being undefeated at that point.

    Also, each of their first four losses came against teams that were battling for European qualification. There was no excuse for being outplayed by Granada, however.

    To cap it all off, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who once again scored the winning goal. Unfortunately, the ball went into his own net this time.

    The loss to Granada was just another poor result in Andalusia for the reigning champions and sent the Spanish media into a frenzy, calling for Jose Mourinho's resignation.

    While the Portuguese manager did not quit after that match, it seemed to be the point at which Mourinho knew he was no longer wanted in the capital—in turn, ushering in a new era at the club.

Young Player of the Year: Koke

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    Atletico Madrid might have missed out on Champions League qualification last year, but it might have been a blessing in disguise for the financially stricken club.

    By not playing in the elite competition, Los Colchoneros were able to protect one of the brightest midfield prospects in all of Europe.

    Isco's presence and success in the tournament turned him into a global sensation that now has Europe's biggest clubs pining for him.

    While Isco deserves all the attention and praise he is receiving, he was not actually the best young midfielder in Spain. That honor belongs to Koke.

     

    The True Future of Spain's Midfield

    The Atleti academy star was nothing short of phenomenal this season, leading a midfield containing the likes of Arda Turan and Gabi.

    Koke is only 21 years old but would already be starting for almost any other national team in football.

    He is an extremely versatile player who is one of the rare footballers capable of playing as either a deep-lying playmaker or a more attack-minded creator.

    Apart from Andres Iniesta, there really was not a more consistently top class midfielder in the league this term—although, overall, Mesut Ozil was still better.

    The rest of Europe will be awakened to Koke's tremendous talents next season, but the youngster already made a huge mark in Spain when his assist led to Atleti's game-winning goal in the Copa del Rey final against Madrid.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Raphael Varane—Rarely does a teenager have the poise, leadership and discipline of Varane, but that is what makes him the best young defender in football. 

    Geoffrey Kondogbia—Varane's former teammate will probably be one of the biggest bargain buys of the summer since Sevilla were unable to create a large buyout clause for the youngster.

    Leo Baptistao—His incredible goalscoring ability saw him surprisingly replace Michu and may have earned him a move across town to Atletico Madrid, according to Marca (Spanish), where he will be playing in the Champions League next season.

     

    Note: To be considered for this award, a player had to be 21 or younger when the season started.

Over-30 Player of the Year: Piti

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    Piti had the best season of his career and finished with 18 goals—more than twice as many goals as Fernando Torres.

    While the 32-year-old is unlikely to displace the Chelsea striker in the Spanish national team, he looks to have at least earned a move to a bigger club after admitting that he had played his last match with Rayo Vallecano, as reported by Inside Spanish Football.

    Apart from Alvaro Negredo and Christian Benteke, no player in Europe's top 5 leagues scored more goals for a team that did not qualify for Europe next season.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Roberto Trashorras—What a revival for the journeyman who led the entire league in accurate long balls per game and averaged more key passes per game than Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.

    Xavi Hernandez—The Spanish legend does not venture forward as much but has learned to compensate by relying more on the long ball. He was once again the most accurate passer in Europe.

     

    Note: To qualify for this award a player had to be over the age of 30 before the season started.

Breakout Star:Iago Aspas

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    Celta de Vigo's 1-0 win over Espanyol on the final matchday kept the Galician club in the first division for at least one more season.

    While it was not Iago Aspas who scored that goal, there is absolutely no doubting that he is the reason the team will enjoy another year in La Liga.

    Aspas was my pick to be one of the breakout stars of the league, and he did not disappoint. Aspas carried his team and was one of the best attacking players in Spain this term.

    The 26-year-old looks to have earned a move to English giants Liverpool, according to The Telegraph, so Premier League fans will soon have the joy of watching Spain's breakout star on a weekly basis.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Leo Baptistao, Raphael Varane, Asier Illarramendi, Abdel Barrada, Ignacio Camacho

Manager of the Season: Philippe Montanier

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    Almost no one expected Real Sociedad to finish in the top six this season, much less the top four. That is why Philippe Montanier finished the season as one of the more respected coaches in Spain.

    Now that we have the entire season to review it is easy to see a Basque club loaded with talent that could compete with the best teams in Spain.

    It would also be too easy—and unfair—to think that Montanier should have had his squad playing this well before now.

    But before the season started, I doubt a single player on the team would have even been considered for a league-wide best XI.

     

    Montanier's Work Fulfilled

    The Basque club's 48-year-old manager took a young, above average team with plenty of potential and turned La Real into arguably the most exciting, enjoyable team to watch in all of Spain.

    He took past underachievers like Carlos Vela, Antoine Griezmann and Imanol Agirretxe and made them into match-winners that exuded confidence.

    He helped develop Inigo Martinez, Asier Illaremendi and Carlos Martinez from relative nobodies (outside of Spain) into some of the best players at their respective positions.

    There was certainly potential for this team to finish in the top six, but Montanier deserves loads of praise for helping the team actually reach that potential this season. 

    It is too bad that he is just one of many top coaches to be leaving Spain this summer.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Paco Jemez—Tactically bold and a believer in his playing style, Jemez deserves near-endless praise from Rayo fans after this season.

    Manuel Pellegrini—The Chilean genius lost his best player, both of his strikers and coached without even being paid for much of the season.

    Somehow, he still led Malaga to a top-six finish and was literally seconds away from playing in the Champions League semifinals. La Liga will be weaker without him.

    Diego Simeone—Atleti had one of the smallest squads of any that was playing in Europe, but Simeone still manage to keep everyone rested and involved.

    He actually had Los Rojiblancos thinking they could challenge for second place from day one and finally ended their winless streak against Madrid.

Player of the Year: Lionel Messi

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    By winning his second straight Pichichi Trophy, Lionel Messi became the first La Liga player to win consecutive scoring titles in 25 years—since Hugo Sanchez in the 1987-1988 season.

    Considering the fact that he missed a month of play and was Barcelona's only real scoring threat, this is quite the feat.

    Not only did Messi lead all players in goals scored, he might have also won the assist title over Andres Iniesta if he had not missed time due to injury.

    This season Messi was as great a goalscorer as Cristiano Ronaldo while also matching Mesut Ozil in creativity.

    No other player in the world can boast to be such a master at both creating and scoring goals. Messi has no equal in this respect.

    As I predicted, Barcelona's over-reliance on Messi proved crippling in the Copa del Rey and Champions League, but that does not take away from the fact that he was the best player in La Liga this season.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Cristiano Ronaldo—CR7 overcame some early season inconsistencies to score another 34 goals while adding 10 assists.

    Diego Godin—The Uruguayan led Atleti to one of the best defensive records in Europe and anchored the best defense in Spain.

    Andres Iniesta—The reigning FIFA Player of the Year led all of Europe in assists—in league play—and was the best midfielder in La Liga this year.

     

    Note: This award was decided based on importance to one's team, result of individual impact on team success and overall player ability.

Moment of the Year: Miranda's Copa Del Rey Winner over Madrid

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    Unless you are an Atletico Madrid fan, it is hard to express how important Miranda's 98th-minute Copa del Rey game-winner was.

    Atleti had not beaten their rivals in 14 years, failing to win even one match out of 25. They had also lost their last three Copa del Rey finals.

    La Liga was a completely different beast the last time Los Colchoneros won the Madrid derby.

    Deportivo La Coruna were champions of Spain, Vicente del Bosque replaced John Toshak midseason as manager of Real Madrid, Atleti were relegated to La Segunda and Racing Santander's Salva won the Pichichi Trophy with just 27 goals.

     

    Enormous Implications

    La Liga's title race was essentially decided in December, and both Spanish giants ended their Champions League run in the first leg of the semifinal ties.

    That left the Copa del Rey as the only tournament where the winner was unknown until the final whistle—and it really was not decided until that moment.

    By meeting Koke's cross and sending it past Diego Lopez, Miranada gave Los Rojiblancos their first Copa del Rey title since 1996 and 10th overall.

    It was the first time that Atleti captain Gabi had ever beaten Madrid and gave Jose Mourinho his first trophyless season in Spain—only winning the Super Copa.

    Diego Simeone ended the season with as many titles as Tito Vilanova and made for not beating Madrid in either league match.

    This win was obviously historic for Atleti and its fans, but it was also a victory for a league that has long been dominated in every aspect by Barcelona and Real Madrid.

     

    Honorable Mentions

    Real Sociedad qualify for Europe after sending Depor to the second division with a 1-0 victory on the final matchday of the season.

    Barcelona win La Liga with a record-tying 100 points and send off Eric Abidal after scoring four goals in a win against Malaga.

    Tito Vilanova overcomes cancer, Eric Abidal returns from liver transplant on the same day—in win over Mallorca.

     

    Who do you think are the most deserving teams and players from the 2012-2013 La Liga season? Please feel free to comment below.