Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid missed out on the title and had to find comfort in the late comeback that brought a 2-1 home win against Villarreal in LaLiga.
Madrid have ended a season without silverware for the first time since 2009-10, and there are doubts over whether captain Sergio Ramos and particularly coach Zidane will remain at the club.
Needing a win here to stand any chance of overtaking Atletico Madrid, the long-time leaders, Zidane’s team were sorely lacking in quality and looked set to end their campaign on a losing note.
LaLiga has worthy champions in Atletico, with Madrid trailing here for much of the game to a goal from 18-year-old Yeremy Pino, before Karim Benzema netted an 87th-minute leveller and Luka Modric fired a stoppage-time winner.
With nervy Madrid lacking an early goal threat, it was the visitors who made the breakthrough after 20 minutes.
Madrid could not get the ball away from the edge of their penalty area and a short, chipped pass from Gerard Moreno picked out teenage forward Yeremy. He took a neat touch to find space before firing into the bottom-right corner, via the left arm of Thibaut Courtois.
Madrid wanted a penalty a few moments later when the ball struck Dani Parejo’s hand, but they were denied by referee Jose Luis Munuera Montero.
Eder Militao went close early in the second half before Madrid were certain they had equalised in the 55th minute, Benzema expertly heading Casemiro’s cross past Rulli.
It went to a VAR review though, and after two minutes of deliberations, the goal was chalked off, to Madrid dismay.
At about the same time, Atletico were fighting back from going behind to lead Real Valladolid.
Madrid chased their lost cause commendably, with Benzema firing a lovely equaliser into the top-right corner, before Modric saved the best for last, lashing left-footed into the opposite side of the net.
But their luck was out elsewhere and title glory goes to their neighbours. Now for Zidane and Ramos to reveal their intentions.
18y 214d – Yeremy Pino has become the youngest opponent player to score at Real Madrid in #LaLiga this century (18 years old & 214 days). Timely@Eng_Villarreal#RealMadridVillarreal pic.twitter.com/zx0wpwS3Jg
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 22, 2021
What does it mean? Empty-handed and big decisions to come
It remained to be seen, as the players left the pitch, when Zidane would show his hand. He has been hiding it for weeks now, with his future at Madrid increasingly clouded in mystery. The widely held assumption is that he is done with this job for a second time, keen to move on.
This is a long way from being a great Madrid team, and if the coach is not committed to a long-term rebuild there seems little point him returning for next season.
It fell to those trusty veterans, Benzema and Modric, to turn this game around. But like Zidane and like Ramos, they are entering the twilight stages of their careers with Los Blancos. The Santiago Bernabeu is undergoing renovation, and the team has to be the next job.
Another late show from the golden oldies
If it is not Ramos, then it is usually Benzema. On this occasion Modric got in on the act too. Nobody does a comeback quite like Madrid, or at least that is how it has felt in recent times.
Their veterans are proven winners, their careers tell you that, and so it was Benzema with his game-high five shots and his ruled-out header who posed the big threat to Villarreal at the Alfredo di Stefano. Modric had three goal attempts too, and played 57 passes in the opposition half, a full 25 more than any team-mate, keeping Madrid ticking along in his inimitable way.
Those players feel irreplaceable, but the day will come.
If not Benzema, then who?
Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio flanked Benzema, and it was telling both were substituted early in the second half. While the Frenchman in the middle was providing a familiar nuisance, Villarreal looked to have the measure of the men either side of him.
Vinicius had one goal attempt and Asensio two, but their threat was minimal and Zidane was not blind to that. Whoever leads Madrid next season must find a way to both get the best out of Eden Hazard and keep the Belgian fit. With him firing in a front three, Madrid could be reinvigorated.
Real Madrid’s season is over, but Villarreal still have the Europa League final against Manchester United on Wednesday in Gdansk.