Paris: If, after years of unbridled success, 2014 was brutally disappointing for Spain on the international stage, it was a glorious year for the country at club level.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
A thrilling title race in La Liga, home to the world's best player Cristiano Ronaldo and his great rival Lionel Messi, made it the envy of the rest of the continent, while Spain took a clean sweep of the European trophies and Real Madrid are in line to cap it all by becoming club world champions.
More than anyone else, it was a year to remember for Real, who finally won the European Cup for an unprecedented 10th time, ending a 12-year obsession with 'La Decima'. After years of frustration since Zinedine Zidane's stunning volley in Glasgow secured their ninth European Cup in 2002, and more than a billion euros spent in the transfer market by president Florentino Perez, Carlo Ancelotti's side beat city rivals Atletico 4-1 after extra time in a pulsating final in Lisbon in May.
It was so nearly a nightmare for Los Blancos, with only a stoppage-time equaliser by Sergio Ramos keeping their hopes alive before they ran away with the game in extra time once Gareth Bale had put them ahead. "This squad is full of young players, talent and desire.
This can be the start of a great cycle," coach Ancelotti ominously declared later, having matched former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley's achievement of winning three European Cups. "When I signed for Madrid the Champions League was the primary objective for this season. Here the history with 'La Decima' made it even more important," added the Italian. So much so that Casillas, who would later endure a disastrous World Cup as the holders were eliminated in the group stage, said the night in Lisbon felt "like something even bigger than winning the World Cup."
Atletico break the mould
For Atletico, meanwhile, it was a reminder that they remain the David against their city neighbours' Goliath and could only continue to upset the odds for so long.
Diego Simeone's side have been a breath of fresh air across Europe and their Spanish title triumph, secured with a final-day draw away to rivals Barcelona, came against all odds.
After almost a decade in which Real and Barcelona had utterly dominated La Liga, Atletico broke the mould with a side led by the bruising centre-forward Diego Costa.
It seems hard to believe that such a story will be repeated any time soon, however, making their failure in the Champions League final all the more agonising. An elite few continue to dominate in Europe's leading leagues.
Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich may have been humbled by Real Madrid in last season's Champions League semi-finals, but they won the Bundesliga in record quick time and conceded just three goals in going unbeaten through their opening 16 games of this season. Overcoming the blow to their prestige of seeing president Uli Hoeness jailed for tax evasion in the spring, Bayern's all-conquering team are being taken to new levels by Guardiola, of whom Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said: "I have never seen such diligence in any other coach."
In France, Paris Saint-Germain won last season's Ligue 1 title with a record points tally from Monaco and remain favourites to win this season's crown, despite Marseille's revival under Marcelo Bielsa. And in Italy, the country's richest and most decorated club Juventus won the league with a record tally of 102 points last season, and few would bet against them winning another Scudetto in 2015. But on the European stage, Spain has outshone the rest, with Sevilla winning the Europa League and then losing to Real in the final of the European Super Cup.
Spain has dominated the transfer market too, with the biggest moves seeing Colombia World Cup star James Rodriguez join Real from Monaco for 80 million euros ($99m) and the controversial Luis Suarez leave Liverpool for Barcelona for a similar amount. And while Italy was as active as anywhere in terms of coaching changes, with Massimiliano Allegri replacing Antonio Conte at Juventus, Filippo Inzaghi taking over at AC Milan and Roberto Mancini returning to Inter, the highest-profile appointment came at Barcelona, where former player Luis Enrique arrived in the summer.
The Catalans, after a glorious era under Guardiola, are currently playing catch-up with their great rivals Madrid, though, just as Messi has played second fiddle to Ronaldo, at least at club level. While Messi reached the World Cup final with Argentina, Ronaldo was eliminated at the group stage with Portugal, but he has broken the 60-goal barrier for a fourth calendar year in a row, and his goals have powered Real on an incredible run of 21 straight wins, with a Club World Cup final still to come.
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