La Liga loses some shine as Mourinho, Falcao and Abidal bid fond farewells

Spain’s Primera Division will be a very different competition in 2013-14 following a number of high-profile exits on Saturday as the current campaign ended with a wave of goodbyes

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

It was a night for fond farewells. As Deportivo La Coruna, Mallorca and Zaragoza said goodbye to Spain’s Primera Division after relegation, Celta Vigo secured survival and Real Sociedad rejoiced by claiming Champions League qualification. Overall, however, La Liga lost some sparkle as a number of its principal protagonists march off into the sunset on Sunday.

Saturday’s action began at Real Madrid as Jose Mourinho made his last appearance at the Santiago Bernabeu, with a mixed reaction from the home support but plenty of fans on his side, too. “Mourinho, thank you for fighting through hell and high water,” one banner read. And after the game, some 10,000 fans stayed behind to pay homage to their much-maligned leader. He may have divided the dressing room and even the club’s support, but the Portuguese has brought much to La Liga over these last three seasons.

There was no last press conference from Mourinho, but Gonzalo Higuain did appear before the media to tell them he would be leaving Madrid as well this summer. “I want to go somewhere people show me they love me,” the Argentine explained. Much like Mourinho, then.

Earlier, Higuain hit his 121st strike in Madrid colours to draw level with another club legend, Juanito. And after six years of stellar service for the Spanish side, he has earned the admiration and respect of most Madrid fans.

While Higuain was talking to the media in Madrid, David Villa scored what will quite probably be his last goal for Barcelona – the opener in a 4-1 win over Malaga which saw the Catalans finish the championship with 100 points. After the match, coach Tito Vilanova (whose own future seems uncertain due to his illness, even if he has reiterated that he will be staying) refused to confirm or deny talk of Villa’s exit. “He is a much-loved player in the dressing room and has connected really well with the fans,” the coach explained.

Victor Valdes stayed on the bench as Jose Pinto played in goal, with the first-choice goalkeeper set to stay another season at the Catalan club, while Vilanova claimed he hopes Thiago will remain at Barca beyond the summer despite his limited appearances in 2012-13. “He is a player for the future but also for the present; we would like very much to have him here but it is his decision.” Had Barca been more intelligent, however, they would have fielded the midfielder for more than 60 per cent of the games and avoided his release clause dropping from a prohibitive €90 million to a much more attractive €18m this summer. Poor management.

One player definitely leaving Camp Nou this summer is Eric Abidal. The French defender had hoped to stay, but was only offered a non-playing role by the Catalan club and will now extend his career elsewhere. Abi was given only 15 minutes against Malaga, but looked assured and athletic – comfortably good enough to play a part next season. His departure remains a mystery, a public relations nightmare smacking of hypocrisy from a club so keen to boast about their values. This emotional exit came too soon.

On the other side, Manuel Pellegrini was taking charge of his last game for Malaga after announcing he will be off this summer – probably to Manchester City. “I won’t confirm anything,” the Chilean said afterwards. “I have an agreement to begin conversations with Manchester City. Some other rumours will be true, others will not. But I have been focused on Malaga until now. It will be hard to leave Spain after nine years [at Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga] – I have been treated wonderfully [here].” Young Spain star Isco is set to follow his coach out of the Costa del Sol club this summer, with City and Madrid both strongly linked. 

Over at Zaragoza, meanwhile, Radamel Falcao was absent from the Atletico Madrid side after agreeing a multi-million move to Monaco on Friday. “These have been the best two years of my career,” the Colombian striker said in a tearful press conference earlier on Saturday. “I have no words to describe the support and the affection from the fans.”

Atletico beat Zaragoza 3-1 as Diego Costa struck twice in the last minute, with the home team desperately seeking survival. Diego Simeone’s side ended the season in third with 76 points but, crucially, must now replace one of the world’s finest forwards as Falcao moves to Ligue 1.

And in Seville, Alvaro Negredo struck four goals as Sevilla beat Valencia 4-3 and coach Unai Emery denied his former side a place in the Champions League. Negredo, who hit 25 Liga goals in 34 appearances this term, now looks set to leave this summer, while his international team-mate Roberto Soldado (who scored twice to take his tally to 24 in La Liga this term) could also be on the move as Valencia come to terms wth failing to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition. Without the cash windfall from the Champions League, the Mestalla-based side will need to raise around €20 to €25 million in player sales – and Soldado is their most marketable asset.

Another Spain striker, Fernando Llorente, will leave Athletic Bilbao to join Juventus this summer, while fellow Basques Real Sociedad lose their coach, Philippe Montanier, even though the Frenchman masterminded their fourth-placed finish and passage into the Champions League. Valencia boss Ernesto Valverde also announced his departure on Saturday, while the club are also set to sell midfielder Tino Costa to Spartak Moscow for €7m. Many more are likely to follow.

Plenty of new faces will also arrive in Spain’s top flight next season, of course, but La Liga loses some shine with the departures on Saturday of some of its finest footballers and coaches: Mourinho, Higuain, Abidal, Falcao, Pellegrini et al, will all be sorely missed.

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