First division - day 37
Thirty one years of waiting are over! Valencia won the league title for the first time since 1971 after beating Málaga 0-2 in an exciting weekend, the next to last of the season. All the league matches were scheduled to kick off at the same time on Sunday evening, and Rafa Benítez's side had to at least produce as good as result as Real Madrid's to ensure the championship. After a shaky start Ayala gave them the lead with a powerful header from Vicente's corner ten minutes before half time, and they appeared to be on track when Fabio Aurelio took a return pass from Aimar to beat Contreras on the stroke of half time. However referee Pérez Burrull at first ruled out the goal for offside, and only after five minutes of protests and conversations between the officials was the goal finally given. The home side did give the visiting fans a fright or two in the second half, but Valencia held on to put the disappointment of two successive Champions League final defeats behind them. Crowds flocked into Valencia town centre to celebrate despite the rain, and festivities went on long into the night.
As it happened a draw would have been enough as Real Madrid were held 0-0 by a desperate Mallorca side who were fighting for survival. Missing the injured Zidane, Madrid were lacking inspiration, and the tiredness of a long season started to show after their epic European victory over Barcelona midweek. Even so Guti had more than enough chances to wrap things up in the first half, missing two opportunities in a minute including a shot from a yard out which incredibly hit the bar. In the end though it took a brilliant performance by their keeper César to save a point, the Spanish international showing why Del Bosque prefers him to Casillas with saves from Eto'o and Luque amongst others. Mallorca settled for a point however, just enough to keep them out of the bottom three, and a victory next week at home to Valladolid will ensure their safety. Manager Sergio Kresic will not be there to enjoy it however. He was sacked earlier in the week and replaced by B team coach Llompart.
Although Madrid's fans were unhappy with the result, they stay in second place, one point ahead of Deportivo who beat Betis 0-3. The Gallicians needed a good result to ensure their Champions League place for next season, and a defeat would meant that their opponents went above them in the league. For a few minutes Betis looked good, with Joao Tomas going close a couple of times from dangerous crosses by Joaquín. But then Diego Tristán stepped in to end the Andalucians hopes of a place in the top four, finishing off a good team move after Valerón set him up. Denilson was booked for diving in the area when he felt he should have had a penalty, and then Betis were left with ten men after Cañas picked up a second yellow card soon after the restart. Seven minutes later Tristán got his second of the night and his 21st league goal of the season from Fran's cross to virtually ensure the Pichichi title this season. And then three minutes later he helped Valerón deliver the killer blow by putting a return pass into the path of the midfielder for him to score the third. Depor now receive the visit of Real Madrid next Friday evening, looking for a win to give them second place and ensure a pass through to the league stage of the European competition. The defeat leaves Betis out of the race for the fourth Champions League spot, but they did ensure themselves a place in the UEFA cup next season.
The battle for fourth place is now between Barcelona and Celta, with the Catalans gaining a clear advantage after winning their local derby with Espanyol 2-0. A defeat for Celta means that Barça will only need a point in their last match at Zaragoza to clinch fourth place, leaving the Gallicians to play the UEFA cup once again. On any other weekend this match would have taken pride of place, but even on the local television network it was displaced by the fight for the league title. Rexach's side came in to the game licking their wounds after losing to Real Madrid, but they dominated the first half, with Kluivert and Saviola both hitting the woodwork before Kluivert finally beat Argensó just before the break. Xavi added a second from a direct free kick in the second half to wrap things up and Espanyol ended the game with nine men after Alex Fernández and Lopo were sent off in the last few minutes.
Celta threw away a one goal lead and ended up losing 1-2 to Sevilla. Karpin was playing his last game at the Balaidos stadium, but it was his Russian team mate who opened the scoring with a brilliant individualist goal in the sixth minute. The visitors did not give up though, and two goals in five minutes from Toedtli turned the score around with less than half an hour on the clock. Both goals came from the right wing, with Gallardo laying across a low ball for the Argentine striker to score the first and Víctor Salas flaoting in another cross for him to head home the second. Gallardo hit the bar just before the break, but it took a good performance by Sevilla keeper Notario to keep out Víctor's side in the second half. The Andalucian's third win in a row takes them to within a point of seventh place, which with Depor's victory will definitely guarantee a place in the UEFA cup for the team in that position at the end of the season.
Incredibly Alavés are still the current incumbents of that spot despite their second defeat in a row, this time 0-1 to Rayo Vallecano. They couldn't have had it much easier either when they were awarded a first minute penalty after Quevedo brought down Iván Alonso, the makeshift defender getting sent off into the bargain. However top scorer Llorens was off target for once, his spot kick striking the crossbar, and a few minutes later Iván Alonso also hit the woodwork with a header. Rayo couldn't believe their luck, and Corino then added insult to injury with his third goal in successive games, the defender beating Herrera with a well struck free kick. Still it wasn't over, and referee Pino Zamorano awarded a second penalty to the home side when Ferrón brought down Astudillo. Once again though Llorens was out of luck, Etxeberria guessing right and saving the kick, and when Magno missed another easy chance at the end the home fans whistled their players off the field.
Only one point now separates four teams, with Athletic Bilbao joining Sevilla and Málaga a point behind Alavés after drawing 1-1 against neighbours Osasuna. The Pamplona based side were struggling to avoid relegation, but Jupp Heynckes' team were not prepared to do them any favours this time with their own objectives to fight for. With several players out due to injuries and suspension, Julen Guerrero returned to the starting line up for the first time in months, and he proved he has not lost any of his ability. The club captain was the only one to create any danger for Unzué in the first half, and he give his side the lead soon after the interval scoring from close range. For 89 minutes the Basques were in Europe, but a last gasp equaliser from substitute Aloisi saved a point for the visitors which, after the day's results, leaves them mathematically sure of first division football next season. Bilbao's Alkorta was playing his last match at the San Mames stadium, and it was a bitter sweet ending for him when he was sent off for a second bookable offence near the end.
Valladolid lost their opportunity to push for a place in Europe after they were defeated 1-3 by Real Sociedad. With other results going in their favour a victory would have taken them level with Alavés, and they started well when Fernando Sales gave them the lead midway through the first half chipping the ball over Westerveld. However an Aranburu piledriver levelled the scores before the break, and Idiakez put the Basque side in front immediately after the restart. Retiring veteran midfielder Eusebio was applauded off the field when substituted later on after setting a new league record of 543 appearances, but the day was spoilt when keeper Ricardo brought down Kovacevic on the edge of the area, the Yugoslav striker scoring himself from the resulting penalty. Real move a point behind their opponents, now safe in mid-table.
Ugly scenes at Villarreal, where Zaragoza were relegated for the first time in 25 years after losing 2-1 to the home side. Visiting fans invaded the pitch after the final whistle and started fighting with the players, and Lainez, Toro Acuña and Villarreal's Palermo were all seen throwing punches as an outright brawl developed. Palermo had given the locals the lead in the tenth minute in his first game in the starting line up for several months, heading home a long cross from Xavi Roca. And when Arruabarrena made it two a quarter of an hour later, some of the visiting supporters already started to make their way out of the ground. Needing a win to be sure of staying up, the home side piled on the pressure, and only good keeping by Lainez prevented the score from getting any bigger. Milosevic did give them a glimmer of hope when he scored from the penalty spot midway through the second half after the referee ruled that Quique Alvarez had tripped Corona, but it was not enough and Marcos Alonso's side drop to the bottom of the pack.
The remaining two relegation spots will be decided next Friday between three teams, Mallorca and the two Canary Island sides Las Palmas and Tenerife. In fact Javier Clemente's side may have dragged their neighbours down with them after winning 0-1 in what must be the most important meeting between the two in years. It was a tense match, with both sides creating chances before Marioni scored the only goal of the game ten minutes or so before the interval, lobbing the ball past young keeper Orlando Quintana who had over committed himself. Tenerife keeper Julio Iglesias made an important fingertip save from Paqui after the break to take the three points back to Santa Cruz and keep their hopes alive. They will be hosts to Bilbao next week and Las Palmas, who are still a point above them, have to visit Real Sociedad. However they both depend on Mallorca dropping points in their home game against Valladolid, and for Tenerife to stay up they have to win, Mallorca have to lose and Las Palmas at best draw. (05.05.02)