This was one of the maddest seasons La Liga has seen, the kind of thing that is hard to imagine now, regardless of Atletico Madrid’s 2014 heroics.
Deportivo La Coruna, a small provincial club who had been growing in stature in the 90s with the likes of Rivaldo making a name for himself there, went on to win their first and more than likely only top flight title. But remarkably they secured the title with just 69 points. In the season just gone Real Madrid finished second with 92.
This was a season where some of the bigger sides struggled to assert their dominance while the wealth and talent was spread through the league more evenly than it is now. Salva Ballesta, a journeyman striker, picked up the Pichichi with 27 goals for Racing Santander who finished just four points clear of the drop but lost the same number of games as Barcelona who finished second. Draws all over the place.
Atletico Madrid earned the biggest win of the season with a 5-0 stroll against Real Oviedo in which Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored. The Dutchman’s 24 league goals were not enough to keep his side up though as Atletico, who made the Uefa Cup semi-finals the previous year, were relegated in 19th just behind Real Betis who went down with 42 points showing the golden 40-point mark of the Premier League has never been as safe in Spain.
Two weeks before Atletico’s big win their city rivals contrived to lose 5-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu to a Savo Milosevic inspired Real Zaragoza who finished the season in fourth one point ahead of Real.
That result signalled a difficult start to Vicente Del Bosque’s tenure in charge but their season would end in a comprehensive Champions League final victory against Valencia. In fact Madrid’s European success saw them qualify for the following year’s tournament at Zaragoza’s expense.
La Liga produced three Champions League semi-finalists in 2000 none of whom could replicate the same form at home and win the domestic title. It all suggests that the league may have been exceptionally strong that year and it was Javier Irureta’s Deportivo who prevailed.
They did so primarily due to a very strong start and an excellent record in front of their fans as the Riazor. They played a classic Spanish 4-2-3-1 packed full of under-appreciated players. Manuel Pablo and Noureddine Naybet led a decent defence protected by 1994 World Cup winner Mauro Silva.
However, it was in attack that the real quality lay. The flamboyant Brazilian Djalminha, Spain international Victor and club legend and record appearance holder Fran, fed Roy Makaay up front whose 22 goals powered their title success.
Deportivo led the league by eight points at the Christmas break but were less than convincing in the run in, with an awful away record (5W 5D 9L) seeing them finish the season with a total of 11 defeats, the most any side has won the Spanish league with.
A 5-2 home win over Real in February was probably the highlight of the season but defeat at the Nou Camp a month later brought Barcelona right back into contention. Deportivo had a run of one win in five in the closing stages but neither the Blaugrana, Madrid or Valencia could take advantage and the unlikely champions were confirmed with a draw at Santander on the penultimate weekend.
Irureta’s side would remain a contender in Europe and domestically for the next four years with the addition of silky injury-prone playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron offering them another touch of class in attack, something he would do for the next decade.
In 2001, Deportivo made major inroads in the Champions League reaching the quarter-finals where they almost overturned a 3-0 first leg deficit against Leeds.Three years later they did exactly that, famously recovering from a 4-1 defeat against defending champions AC Milan to win 4-0 at the Riazor and make the last four for the first time.
They lost an extremely tight tie to a eventual winners Porto by a single goal and that defeat effectively marked the end of the club’s spell as a major force. They struggled the following season leading to Irureta’s departure, their decline culminating in relegation in 2013.