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Barcelona and Real Madrid set for more last-day drama in La Liga

No matter how much nonsense you may have heard or read about La Liga's lack of competitiveness, it has become almost routine for the title race to be decided on the final day of the season.
Does that happen all across Europe? No, it doesn't.
Although Spain's football brinkmanship dates back to the 1920s and teeters on the edge every few years, it is particularly apt that this season sees Barcelona, who have a one-point lead with one game to go, staring into the whites of Real Madrid's eyes.
The Catalan club lost its mentor, its maestro earlier this year and you could easily argue that the most emblematic, recurring theme of his "Dream Team" was the dramatic, final day win.
In 1991-92, 1992-93 and 1993-94, Barcelona hit the final day of league action in second only to then win the title each time, due to some extraordinarily dramatic events.
Only those who pay no more than a passing interest to Spanish football would view those titles as fortunate or unimpressive.
However much Barcelona did or didn't merit them -- choose your positions, folks -- there were factual side effects that are important to the modern day understanding of the club.
Prior to Johan Cruyff's arrival as manager in 1988, Barca had been no more than also-rans; their attitude far bigger than their appetite.
In fact, in the 31 years between 1960 and 1991, just twice had they been able to call themselves champions of their league.
Pathetic, no? Especially when you consider that, in the same period, Real Madrid won 19 league titles.
So the first thing to note about that trio of nerve-shredding Barca title wins, when Madrid (twice) and Deportivo La Coruna were cruelly robbed of seeing the chequered flag first despite having started the afternoon in pole position, was that it was earth-shatteringly rare.
Barcelona are away to Granada on the season's final day, while Real Madrid visit Deportivo.
Both Cruyff and Terry Venables have emphasised to me that they found what they described as "losing," "fatalistic" or "masochistic" tendencies among the Barcelona players and staff, as well as fans and media.
Each of those foreign, title-winning coaches believed that, consciously or subconsciously, a culture had taken deep root of being happy to moan about not succeeding, of moaning about Madrid and of merely "talking a good game" about their desire to win.
Therefore, to not only win the title repeatedly, but to do so in the most daredevil, Rocky Marciano-off-the-ropes manner each time, imbued many around Barcelona with a new understanding of a winning mentality.
There was a completely new appetite for the long and arduous process of planning for and then effecting success.
It's no supposition to say that the acceptance began then that a Cantera was important -- no matter if it was a slow-boil process -- and that the catalyst was watching local boys like Pep Guardiola, Albert Ferrer, Guillermo Amor and Carles Busquets make history by winning in extremis.
Cultural change began and winning became an expectation, not some far off Holy Grail.
There was a distinct mentality shift in terms of how robust -- not just aesthetically pleasing and noisily pro-Catalan -- Barcelona were expected to be.
What is unavoidable, because the golden generation has talked about it so much, is that players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes and even younger guys like Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, all began to be inspired by seeing Barcelona confident and victorious in last-ditch situations which, once, wholly belonged to Madrid.
The winning mentality that Barcelona and Spain have enjoyed in their Catalan-trained footballers had a part of its genesis simply because Barca began to win titles on the last day of seasons, in direct opposition to Madrid.
Confidence breeds confidence, hard work seems worth it and self-doubt evaporates.
Young, talented kids not only see possibilities but understand that a new baseline standard has been established.
Those last-day triumphs helped breed that understanding and, of course, it was particularly nourishing to the muscling-up of a psyche that Madrid were, twice, left with egg on their faces.
The first time probably matched anything the Premier League went through in 2012, when that Sergio Aguero goal won the title for Manchester City at Manchester United's expense.
Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane believes anything can happen as his side vies for the Liga title.
Dateline: Sunday, June 7, 1992.
Madrid lead the league by one point and, via Fernando Hierro and Gheorghe Hagi, they streak to a 2-0 lead in Tenerife.
Cruyff's Barcelona, meanwhile, are still getting over the celebrations that followed their first European Cup win and are huffing and puffing at 0-0 against Athletic Bilbao.
With 55 minutes of the season left, it appears to be game, set and match Madrid.
Then, chaos.
First, Tenerife pull a goal back against Madrid before Barca's Hristo Stoichkov scores twice in fewer than 15 minutes.
Then, with 13 minutes left, Tenerife score two goals in fewer than 120 seconds and, despite the presence of a young, aggressive Luis Enrique in their side, Madrid have been mugged.
Watching at home, a 12-year-old Xavi is still annoyed with his parents for denying him the chance to go to London for the European Cup final, but stays glued to the television as his heroes win the league. He'll later say that it had a big influence on him.
The following June, Madrid again lead the table by a point as the final day of the season dawns. Again, Los Blancos go to Tenerife while Barcelona face Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou.
Madrid lose 2-0 and Stoichkov again guides home Barca who, depending on your point of view, have got either the same unbelievable luck and strolled home because the favourites have tripped up, or shown the "winning" mentality that says: "We're never beaten."
In 1994, the same thing happened again, albeit with different rivals.
Deportivo La Coruna are flowering and about to produce their most seductive, powerful and enjoyable football. But the big prize is going to have to wait a year or two.
Depor probably deserve the title and lead the league by one point on the last day -- where have we heard that before? -- when they kick off against Valencia at the Riazor.
The head-to-head with Barcelona is identical, with both teams having won 2-1 at home when they met.
If Depor lose and Barcelona draw, then Cruyff's "Last Day Here We ComeAgain!" side will win on goals scored and goal difference.
As full time approaches, Barca are ahead but Deportivo need just one goal to claim the title and, in added time and they win a penalty.
Miroslav Djukic will take it.
At the Camp Nou transistor radios are pressed to Catalan ears and word has reached the bench. Assistant Charly Rexach is perturbed.
"Don't worry, he'll miss it," says Cruyff.
Djukic's 12-yard effort is from the drawer containing files marked "pass-back penalty kicks," "nightmares" and "ruined seasons."
It's atrocious; Valencia goalkeeper Jose Luis González will never make an easier save. Djukic falls to the ground, holding his head in shame and disbelief.
Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique believes the Blaugrana deserve the Liga title as they've led the race for 'many weeks'.
Six years later, in 2000, Barcelona and Deportivo go into the final day separated by three points. Again, everything hinges on the last 90 minutes of the season. This time, Deportivo prevail.
Still more nerve-wracking was the "Fat Lady Singing" part of season 2002-03.
Xabi Alonso's Real Sociedad are the people's choice but, despite beating Atletico Madrid, they are denied as Vicente Del Bosque's Real Madrid thump Jupp Heynckes' Athletic Bilbao.
There is more last-day drama in 2007 when Fabio Capello's "rediscovery" of David Beckham -- having dropped him "for good" after the Englishman announced he was leaving for the LA Galaxy -- meshes with Madrid's miraculous recovery that culminates in a title-clinching 3-1 win against Mallorca to deny Barcelona.
Want more last-day champions in extremis? How about 2009-10, Guardiola's second season in charge at Barcelona, when Manuel Pellegrini's Real Madrid take the title battle to the 38th and final game.
Before celebrating, Guardiola offers firm, warm congratulations to his Chilean rival.
"If they hadn't been so good we wouldn't have been forced to play so well, score so many and win so many points," Guardiola says about the man from whom he'll inherit the Manchester City job this summer.
And, of course, season 2013-14 ends in utter drama with Atletico being crowned champions after drawing 1-1 at the Camp Nou -- after a Messi "goal" was ruled offside -- with a sizeable chunk of home fans staying on to cheer and applaud them.
Will any of this guide us, definitively, as to whether Granada can repeat their daring, stubborn 1-0 win against Barcelona, which very nearly guaranteed Atleti the title in 2014?
No, it won't.
Or whether Deportivo can reconstruct the football "hell" that their Riazor home began to represent in the dreams of Madrid footballers between 1991 and 2010, during which time Real didn't win there once.
Probably not.
But what is true is that this is par for the course in Spain: Good football featuring technical skills galore, better technique and spectacular imagination from strategically-bright players, as well as a non-stop flow of European trophies.
And last-ditch drama. Soak it up.
Sphamandla Ntshokotsha

Sphamandla Ntshokotsha

Staff writter

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