Posted: Wednesday June 8, 2011 12:04PM ; Updated: Wednesday June 8, 2011 12:04PM
Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe>INSIDE SOCCER

La Liga's team of the season

Story Highlights

David De Gea is a brilliant prospect but heading to Man United

Andoni Iraola provided more assists than any other defender except Dani Alves

Zaragoza midfielder Gabi recovered possession more than any outfield player

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Andoni Iraola, Giuseppe Rossi
Bilabo's Andoni Iraola (left) is the best right back in Spain not named Dani Alves.
Vincent West/Reuters

Team of the Season, not including "them."

GK, David De Gea, Atlético Madrid

One of the sad things about putting together a team of the season from those that play for teams other than Real Madrid or Barcelona is the depressing inevitability of half its players then leaving at the end of the season, thus undermining their team's chances of competing with the big two. All the more so when that departure is normally to Madrid or Barcelona. The good news is that David De Gea will not be strengthening one of the big two -- they have brilliant goalkeepers already -- but he will be departing for Manchester United as soon as the U-21 European Championships are over. Tall, agile and blessed with great confidence, he still has flaws to eradicate and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to different duties in England.

Possibly not quite as good as everyone wants to believe but still very, very good. Conceded more goals from outside the area than anyone else in Spain but saved more shots than anyone else too. Life will be different with an actual defense in front of him.

RB, Andoni Iraola, Athletic Bilbao

The best right back in the country, after Dani Alves. Sometimes it can be hard to avoid the feeling that playing Iraola at right back is a waste -- you want him to be more involved. Talking about Lionel Messi recently, he insisted that the Argentine forces you to worry about him even when you have the ball, curtailing your own attacking instincts. The good news is that Iraola can defend too and that his attacking instincts are not curbed all that often. Technically gifted, precise and clever, he has provided more assists than any other defender in Spain. Except Dani Alves, but Alves hasn't counted as defender for years.

Will surely become Spain's regular right back if and when Sergio Ramos moves into the middle.

CB, Sergio Ballesteros, Levante

Has a neck like Iron Mike Tyson, so wide he could use a mere mortal's belt as a collar. An imposing figure, weighing in at well over six foot and more than 13 stone, Ballesteros is surely the heaviest defender in the league and, at 35, among the oldest too. Has a reputation for being a hard nut, even if he claims it's more a case of giving a dog a bad name. If so, he is Spot or Rex: "If I was as handsome as [David] Beckham no one would call me dirty," he says. Others say: look at the 11 red cards throughout his career. But in a career that goes all the way back to 94, that's not really that many and nor is he as slow as he first appears. In fact, he is remarkably swift across the ground. Clever, cunning and a born leader, intimidating too, he has helped carry a side that should have gone down to survival with games to spare. A proper leader.

CB, Nunes, Mallorca

Every single year, Mallorca lose all of its best players and are forced to start all over again. And every single year, you can't help thinking that this will be the year that they go down. But every year they survive and normally pretty comfortably. This season's final-day heartache was a bit bizarre: Mallorca had never really been in trouble and started to slip precisely because it thought it was safe with five or six games to go.

One of the reasons for that is that, surprisingly, neither Ivan Ramis nor Nunes are among the men that have departed even as countless others waved goodbye to Palma. Tough, quick and focused, they have been among the most consistent center-back partnerships in Spain over the last three or four years. At a cost of €2.5 million ($3.6M) from Braga in 2005-06, Nunes is Mallorca's most expensive player this season. He has proved a bargain.

LB, Jeremy Matthieu, Valencia

In truth, three left backs have stood out this season. Marcelo at Madrid, Eric Abidal at Barcelona and Joan Capdevila. But two of those are ruled out already and Capdevila is a bit too obvious -- the kind of default choice at left back. So, it was time to look elsewhere. Earlier in the campaign Jon Aurtenetxe really stood out at Athletic Bilbao -- tough, skillful and offensive. But injury and a coach who, at the Bernabéu especially, occasionally bottled it meant that he end up playing just 10 games. So, Matthieu is the choice. Not least because his performances this season have come as such a surprise. Still struggling to speak Spanish, Matthieu was dire last year, a liability, This year he has been fast, incisive and solid -- apart from against Real Madrid -- providing good deliveries, energy and constant support to his teammates.

RM, Xabi Prieto, Real Sociedad

When Real Sociedad went down, everyone assumed their best players would leave. Xabi Prieto and Mikel Aranburu refused. They could have done. Real Sociedad's former coach Juanma Lillo used to insist that Prieto was good enough to play for Madrid and Barcelona; this season, now working as a commentator following his sacking at Almería, Lillo claimed that Prieto should be in the Spain squad. And you can see his point. Tall and slight, there is something odd about the way that he moves, something almost exaggeratedly slow, but there is nothing wrong with the way he plays -- the precision of his passing from the right is often astounding. Only Messi, Ozil and Alves produced more assists this season.

CM, Borja Valero, Villarreal

It was a close run thing between Borja and his midfield partner Bruno Soriano, but Borja gets the nod. The sixth-best average rating in the league, match by match, according to Don Balón (the only ones handing out match day ratings without a club filter bias). Only Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Cazorla and Rossi have higher ratings. And the latter two have benefited from Borja's control, technique and touch throughout the season as he keeps Villarreal moving. Besides, they have been included too. A central midfielder in the Barcelona mold although he came through the Real Madrid youth system, and a man that Pep Guardiola looked at very closely last season, Borja has provided eight assists and almost 2,000 passes. Spain call-up was richly deserved.

CM, Gabi, Zaragoza

On the final day of the season, Gabi scored two absolutely gorgeous goals to keep Real Zaragoza in the First Division. It could not have been more appropriate: Zaragoza's captain had been doing much the same virtually all season. Rarely has a player so completely dominated a side, dragging them up by the laces of their boots. Committed more fouls than anyone in Spain, recovered possession more than any outfield player, and completed more passes than all bar eight players in La Liga. The problem was normally who he was passing the ball to: in terms of key passes -- assists that did not necessarily finish in goals -- only four players produced more than he did but when it came to assists (those that turned into goals), he was not even in the top 20. More starts, more minutes, more assists, more passes, more fouls and more goals than anyone else in the Zaragoza side. Who else was going to rescue them?

LM, Santi Cazorla, Villarreal

Santi Cazorla did not go to the World Cup but he did go to Spain's first game after it. He was also invited to join the World Cup-winning celebrations. There could hardly be a better reflection of the way that the rest of the Spain squad and Vicente del Bosque feel about him than that sense of shame and sadness at his absence in South Africa. Cazorla had not been fully fit, coming off the back of an injury that saw him limited to just 24 games last season. Del Bosque would have risked him but risking him and Torres and Iniesta would have been a step too far. So, the smiliest player in Spain stayed at home, that grin for once gone. Luckily, this season he is back -- and as good as ever, maybe even better. Exceptionally fast feet, incredibly mobile, always involved and technically perfect, he even played one Spain match as a central midfielder -- a position he had never played before. And was impeccable. Villarreal's most important creative spark, if you want to know how good he is, just ask Giuseppe Rossi .

F, Giuseppe Rossi, Villarreal

Mind you, if Rossi would be quick to stress Cazorla's contribution, the same is true when you reverse those roles. Ask Cazorla about Rossi and the reply is even more simple: Rossi, he says, "is the best." It's hard to argue.

There is a case to be made to describe Rossi as Spain's outstanding player this season outside Real Madrid and Barcelona (the question, with Barça preparing its check book, is: for how much longer?) The top scoring Italian (and American) in La Liga history, he has now overtaken Diego Forlán's goal scoring record at Villarreal and finished the season with 18 in the league, plus 11 more in the Europa League. There have been a great variety of goals too, but most of them have hinged on two basic qualities -- technique and clever mobility, always looking to make the run beyond the final defender. Borja Valero, the man whose job it is to find him, says: "he makes it easy for us."

F, Felipe Caicedo, Levante

A real battering ram of a striker and a key part of Levante's surprise success, Caicedo joined the club on loan from Manchester City with a €1 million ($1.4M)purchase clause. Levante, whose economic crisis continues even if it is now largely under control, will exercise that right -- making him the first player tthe team has paid for in four years -- and then sell him on. In other words, he will have rescued them on the pitch and off the pitch. Few players did so much with so little this season. Caicedo scored 13 goals, which might not sound like that many but consider this: he was playing for the team that was an obvious candidate for relegation, only five players outside Madrid and Barcelona got more, it is almost a third of Levante's total number and he spread them across 12 different games, providing a constant contribution. Playing up front alone, it's not like he got many chances either. He took just 43 shots all season -- no one had a better shot to goals ratio anywhere in La Liga.

 
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