Drama is guaranteed in La Liga on Saturday when Barcelona go into the final day just one point ahead of Real Madrid, and both teams play at opponents - Granada and Deportivo La Coruna respectively - safe from any relegation worries.
Less certain, but much talked about in Spain this week, are the possible reasons why teams who, with apparently little to play for, have often come up with unexpectedly strong performances.
Such last day drama has happened many times over the years, with both Barca and Madrid involved in games which even years later generate discussion about what exactly happened.
The last time the top two reversed positions on the final day came in 1993/94, in maybe the most dramatic La Liga title race of all. Deportivo La Coruna had lead the standings since week 14, and just needed to beat Valencia at home to seal their first ever Spanish championship. But Depor defender Miroslav Djukic’s infamous last minute penalty miss allowed Johan Cruyff’s Barca to overtake them by beating Sevilla 5-2 at home.
Valencia had little to play for that day, but still celebrated wildly on the final whistle, in a way which raised suspicions of a ‘maletin’. These are the secret [or not so secret] briefcases full of cash which were often rumoured to change hands late in the season. A team involved in the title race or relegation struggle would thereby ‘motivate’ a mid-table side which was facing one of their rivals at the top or bottom. An unnamed Valencia player told El Pais in 2011 that the week before they denied Depor the 1994 trophy, he had met an also unnamed Barca player in a motorway service station and three million pesetas changed hands.
Three of the four consecutive championships won by Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ between 1991-94 came in similar circumstances on the final day. The other two dramatic successes were at the expense of Real Madrid, who somehow managed to slip-up at Tenerife both times.
The first year Madrid had topped the table since week seven and went into their last game of the season a point clear. They were even 2-0 up inside the first half hour and seemingly strolling to the title. But Tenerife - then coached by ex-Madrid player and future Blancos manager Jorge Valdano - somehow came back to win 3-2. Barca beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 and won the title by a point.
Two Tenerife players, captain Toño and Manolo Hierro [Fernando’s brother] later claimed they and their teammates had received a sum from Barca, which was reported at 21 million pesetas. Both were suspended by the authorities, but the punishment was later lifted on appeal.
It was reported at the time that Valdano was one of the few in the Tenerife camp to turn down any money, but he told El Larguero this week that Madrid had just suffered from an attack of nerves at just the wrong moment.
“When the top of the table is so tight, nerves are a factor,” Valdano said. “Madrid were winning 2-0 in Tenerife, dominating completely. The turnaround can only be explained by nerves in the last 30 minutes.”
The following season, pretty incredibly, Madrid also went to the Estadio Heliodoro Rodriguez Lopez on the last day with the title on the line. The Bernabeu outfit had succeeded in chasing down Barca and were top themselves with just 90 minutes left to play. But Tenerife won again, 2-0 this time, and Cruyff’s side beat Real Sociedad 1-0 at home to lift the trophy.
Ex-Madrid defender Manolo Sanchis played on both the 1991/92 and 1992/93 teams. He also went for a non-financial reason when explaining what had happened on El Partido de los 12 on Monday.
“The first year our momentum was so bad that any setback in the game brought us doubts,” Sanchis said. “The second year we lost the title on the flight over - the plane had to return to Madrid airport and the president had to borrow another private plane. We arrived at the hotel at 12:30AM, having lost up to five kilos due to temperatures of 60 degrees on the flight over. That cost us the next day - we didn't have the motivation or the energy to fight.”
Such hair-raising episodes might seem to be well in the past, but during the tight title race just two years ago a debate over the morality of ‘maletines’ arose again. Spanish players’ union president Luis Rubiales claimed then that he saw nothing wrong with “a little gift” for a team who were already going to play their best.
And just this week Sanchis, despite his past experiences, said during a chat with fans on Marca.com that he liked the idea of such “extras”. “I’m in favour of the bonuses to win,” Sanchis said. “It just means an extra add-on to what is the player’s normal job, which is nothing else but going out to win the game.”
La Liga president Javier Tebas holds a different view - as he told Marca this week. “Spanish rules do not allow any of these ‘bonus’ payments,” Tebas said. “We will not allow behaviour that goes against the integrity of football. We will be watching all the games, not just Granada. Recently we’re more attentive to this type of thing.”
There is no suggestion that Madrid [or any other club] are making any such plans, while players and officials at Granada and Deportivo have this week made it clear that their professional pride means they always give 100% in every game.
But the build-up to the final week has reminded many in Spain of just how dramatic such days have often been through La Liga history.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan