Sid Lowe
Thursday May 20th, 2010

At the start of the La Liga season, Real Madrid new director general Jorge Valdano described it as a Hollywood blockbuster, and there was little doubt who was going to play the starring roles.

Madrid versus Barcelona was personified by Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi. When the two teams met in November, El Clásico was shown at cinemas across the country for the first time ever. The two men looking out from the posters, all fixed jaws and steely stares, could hardly be anyone else: Messi and Ronaldo, the last two winners of the Ballon d'Or, the best players on the planet.

As the season drew to a close on the final day, Madrid and Barcelona having destroyed every other team out of sight and smashed countless La Liga records along the way, the choice felt as natural as it had at the outset. Although Messi has been the undisputed winner, together they had dominated the season. Messi scored 34 league goals and Ronaldo had 26, some of them of breathtaking brilliance. They had more shots and completed more dribbles than anyone else in La Liga, boasted the best average ratings and had become the unquestioned leaders of the league champions and the side that had pushed them all the way -- the clubs that humiliated the rest of the league, with No. 1 Barca finishing a staggering 28 points ahead of third-place Valencia.

But while 2009-2010 has been the Messi & Ronaldo Show, they haven't been alone. It's time to recognize the other men who left their mark and made this season special.

People like assist leader Dani Alves and abs-solutely fantastic striker Diego Forlan, with his shirt-removing, stomach-muscle-displaying obsession; Xerez's not-quite-miracle-working coach, Pipo Gorosito, and Pedrito-turned-Pedro; Gregorio Manzano and his astonishing job at Mallorca, where, frankly, the most impressive performer looked likely to be their cuddly devil mascot, Dimoni, but wasn't.

And people like Filipe Luis, who made a big impact at Deportivo -- from left back; Iker Muniain, who at 16 became the league's youngest goal scorer, and his Athletic Bilbao teammate Joseba Etxeberria, who played for free in his final season and bowed out with a unique testimonial -- a match against 200 kids from the club's youth system; and Getafe's impossibly smooth coach, Míchel, and his alter ego on the wing, Pedro Leon.

People, in short, like the following three:

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And that's not a phrase anyone expected to be used about Navas. On the final day of the season, Sevilla knew that it had to win to clinch a Champions league place -- a vital objective without which it would enter into what one director described as a "crisis," forced to downsize its expenditure and rip up all its plans for the future -- and one man more than anyone else made sure it happened.

Sevilla beat Almería 3-2, the last goal coming 45 seconds from the end from 19-year-old Rodri, who was playing only his second game for the club. But it was Navas, sprinting down the right and delivering crosses, who provided it. Just as he had provided the previous two. Just as he had provided more assists than any other player in the Spanish league apart from Alves. Just as it was Navas who deservedly scored the goal that finally clinched the Copa del Rey title against Atletico.

For years, when the going got tough, Navas got going -- out of there. Anxiety attacks had prevented him from playing for Spain or joining his team for all of preseason training. Happily, this year, not only did he perform consistently brilliantly for his club, but he also finally made the leap and agreed to be called up to the Spain squad for the first time. And Spain couldn't be happier to have him.

Sergio Canales didn't even appear in the guide books for the 2009-2010 season. Now, he's Real Madrid's latest superstar, signed from Racing Santander in midseason and destined for the top, the most exciting player to emerge during this campaign. A teenager who had a stream of teenage girls literally chasing after him on his 19th birthday. The man -- the kid -- who defines Racing's season ... the story of his rise and fall is the story of theirs.

Canales announced his arrival with two brilliant goals against Sevilla and helped to drag Racing out of trouble near the foot of the table -- the most significant change made by coach Miguel-Angel Portugal when he took over. One win in 10 under former coach Juan Carlos Mandia became five wins in six under Portugal; from the relegation zone, Racing climbed to 12th. And Canales was the key: Against Madrid, he came on and scored a coolly taken equalizer only to have it wrongly disallowed; against Espanyol, he made his first start and scored twice in a 4-0 win; against Tenerife, his second start, Racing won 2-0; and against Sevilla, he started and scored two wonderful goals.

But then something went badly wrong. Everyone got excited. Everyone turned up in Santander, checkbooks in hand. And Racing took advantage, selling him to Madrid in February. He stayed with Racing the rest of the season -- Canales will join Madrid this summer -- but something broke that day, the magic had gone. They'd sold their soul. Canales scored only once more, a brilliant strike against Villarreal, and Racing won just two in 18. Only a final-day victory -- and a suspicious one at that -- rescued the side from its own folly. Ultimately, only Canales's sudden, and fleeting, appearance rescued it at all.

There were only a few weeks of the season left when the unashamedly pro-Real Madrid sports daily Marca splashed Ronaldo's head on the cover with the headline: "Objective: Pichichi." The story was simple. The Pichichi award is handed to La Liga's top scorer at the end of the season and Madrid's heroic Ronaldo was going to hunt down Barcelona's nasty Messi and overtake him. So far, so sectarian -- and so standard. The thing is, the paper had deliberately overlooked another Madrid player: Ronaldo did not just need to overtake Messi; he had to overtake Higuain, too.

It was a telling oversight, and in the end, Ronaldo did neither. Higuain finished with 27 league goals to go with the 22 he scored last season -- and he did it against a backdrop of constant criticism, innuendo and attack, which, worryingly for the Argentine, appeared to be filtering out of the club itself.

Higuain provided an airtight defense with a constant stream of strikes, but much of the media still tried to puncture holes in it. Rather than celebrate his goals, they seemed angered by them. The fact that Marca failed to have Higuain down as one of "its" players despite playing for its club said it all; Higuain had been signed by the club's former regime, not the new one the publication was trying to elevate to the status of sanctity, and it appeared that the journalists there just could not get that key thought out of their heads. Never mind club loyalty; he stood in the way of the men they really wanted to succeed.

Along with others in the media, especially on the baseless, late-night shouting fest that is the TV program Punto Pelota, Marca accused him of failing to get goals in big games, of being greedy and of just, well, not being that good. Ultimately, his crime appeared to be twofold: He played more than Karim Benzema and scored more than Ronaldo. When it came to goals, it was Higuain, not Ronaldo, who got closest to Messi.

How dare he?

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