Europe in a Nutshell: Curtain comes down on 2014-15 season

The earth as Leo Messi's soccer ball. Clubs say farewell. And a rough week for Lazio. Plus, playing favorites among the season's notable players, games and stories.

EUROPE IN A NUTSHELL. There were two important games Monday. Norwich City scored in the 12th and the 15th minute against Middlesbrough in the Championship Playoff final at Wembley, regaining its place in the Premier League with a 2-0 win, said to be worth a cool $200 million.

Roma clinched second in Serie A on Monday with a 2-1 win over rival Lazio. A draw would’ve guaranteed Lazio a UCL berth, but after tying the game in the 81st minute Lazio gave up the winner with just five minutes left. This after losing to Juventus, 2-1, in overtime while putting in a tremendous performance in the Coppa Italia final on Wednesday. Lazio must get at least draw at Napoli in Italy’s final round of games on Sunday to keep Italy’s last UCL berth, while Juve can now win the treble by beating Barcelona in Berlin.

Paco Alcacer scored with 10 minutes remaining in La Liga’s season, completing a 3-2 come from behind victory over Almeria, keeping Valencia from losing its UCL berth, with Sevilla lurking one point back. Sevilla can still win a UCL berth in Wednesday’s Europa League final in Warsaw, against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Real Madrid claimed for years winning La Decima was its biggest goal. Carlo Ancelotti won the club’s 10th European Cup, doing what Jose Mourinho failed to do, and got fired on Monday, after falling a goal short of this year’s Champions League final, and two points shy of the La Liga title. Tough crowd.

FARE THEE WELL. Two Premier League icons said goodbye on Saturday. Steven Gerrard was the only player to score at Stoke City in Liverpool’s embarrassing 6-1 loss; he’s now heading to the LA Galaxy. Frank Lampard also scored, in Manchester City’s 2-0 win over Southampton, and the Chelsea legend will soon be at New York City FC. They’ll both still be playing in the same league and country, while plying their trades over 3,000 miles away -- welcome to the continental United States gentlemen.

Didier Drogba, who announced before the weekend he’ll play one more season elsewhere, was carried off the field in his last game at Stamford Bridge during a pre-planned substitution in Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Sunderland.

Borussia Dortmund plays Wolfsburg in the German Cup final next week, but Saturday’s 3-2 win over Werder Bremen was the last opportunity for Signal Iduna Park’s rabid fans to say goodbye to Juergen Klopp, whose force of personality was synonymous with the club’s recent renaissance. Klopp’s postgame provided a parting quip, when queried about rumors of coaching Madrid (before Ancelotti’s firing).

Born and raised less than hour from the Camp Nou, Xavi was brought to tears on Saturday after being subbed off and again while addressing the crowd. With the title in hand, the entire match was about celebrating the man who’d won the most trophies in Spanish history (don’t tell that to Deportivo, which came back from two goals down to earn a 2-2 tie, and avoid relegation).

Arriving as an 11-year-old boy at La Masia in 1991, he grew into a man with a game so precise it took most years to appreciate, Xavi was the hub of some of the greatest teams the world has ever known, simply by unerringly putting the ball exactly where it needed to go.

CURTAIN COMES DOWN ON 2014-15 SEASON. Soccer never sleeps, but the sun is setting on Europe’s season. Here are a few facts, and some subjective selections of what made it great.

Scoring by league: Bundesliga 2.75 goals per game, La Liga 2.66, Serie A 2.64, Premier League 2.57, Ligue 1 2.49 goals per game.

Surprise winner: Believe it or not, Barcelona’s fifth La Liga crown in seven years registered as the biggest surprise among Europe’s top leagues, as Real Madrid was the only preseason favorite which didn’t win. Juventus (Italy), Bayern Munich (Germany), Paris Saint-Germain (France) and Chelsea (England) all won rather comfortably in a season offering few plot-twists at the very top.

Champions League qualifiers (in order of finish): Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Valencia* from Spain; Bayern, Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen* from Germany; PSG, Lyon and Monaco* from France; Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Manchester United* from England; Juventus, Roma and Italy’s third berth will be Lazio* (or Napoli, if it beats Lazio in Naples next Sunday).
*Enter into UCL playoffs.

Dream promotions (great nicknames required): Founded in 1898, SV Darmstadt 98 (stadium capacity 19,000), has spent only two seasons in Germany's top flight, most recently in 1982. Financial problems saw Die Lilien (The Lilies) fall to the fourth division, toiling there as recently as 2010. Darmstadt gained promotion to Bundesliga 2 by winning one of the most exciting playoffs in German history two seasons ago, and shocked many by earning promotion this season. Darmstadt will be in the Bundesliga this fall, after playing in the third division in the spring of 2014. In England, Bournemouth (stadium capacity 11,700), won the Championship and will reap huge financial rewards in the Premier League next season. The Cherries qualified for England’s top division for the first time ever, after being founded in 1890, 125 years ago.

Top scorers by league: Cristiano Ronaldo 48 goals (Real Madrid, Spain), Alexandre Lacazette 27 (Lyon, France), Sergio Aguero 26 (Man City, England) and Alexander Meier 19 (Eintracht Frankfurt, Germany). Luca Toni of Verona, who turns 38 on Tuesday, leads Italy with 21 goals, but Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan and Carlos Tevez of Juve have 20 strikes apiece, with one game to play.

Most Xavis (aka assists) by league: Kevin De Bruyne 20 assists (Wolfsburg, Germany), Lionel Messi 18 (Barca, Spain), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea, England) 18, Dimitri Payet 17 (Marseille, France), and three players in Italy have 10 assists -- Marek Hamsik (Napoli), Paulo Dybala (Palermo) and Miralem Pjanic (Roma).

Breakout players: Granit Xhaka, age 22 (Borussia Monchengladbach); Paulo Dybala, 21 (Palermo); Harry Kane, 21 (Tottenham); Paco Alcacer, 21 (Valencia); and Alexandre Lacazette, age 23 (Lyon).

Best additions: Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Wendell (Bayer Leverkusen), Fabinho (Monaco).

Coaching clinics: Leonardo Jardim (Monaco), Alan Pardew (Newcastle/Crystal Palace), Stefano Pioli (Lazio), Nuno (Valencia) and Dieter Hecking (Wolfsburg).

Best game: Watching Paris Saint-Germain, a club hailed as wealthy mercenaries, show the grit, talent and teamwork needed to knock Chelsea out of the Champions League at Stamford Bridge, while playing a man down for 90 minutes, revealed the error in assuming a club's heart is inversely related to its bank account, and proved the peril of Jose Mourinho’s penchant for playing ultraconservative.

Most valuable player (not named Ronaldo or Messi): For me it had to be Kevin De Bruyne of Wolfsburg. The 23-year-old Belgian tied the Bundesliga record for assists, with 20, led Europe's top leagues with 27 assists in all competitions, added 15 goals, and carried his club to a surprising second-place finish in Germany. Fellow Belgian Eden Hazard made a strong case as the source of Chelsea's creativity, but he’s getting docked points for playing on a loaded roster.

De Bruyne was also at the heart of one of Europe’s most inspiring victories all season, Wolfsburg’s 4-1 win over Bayern Munich, the first game after the death of the Wolves’ Junior Malanda, age 20. De Bruyne, whose twitter account still features a photo of him with Malanda, honored his fallen friend and countryman with a pulsating performance, handing Bayern its first league loss of the season.

AND THEN THERE WAS ONE. Lionel Messi teased the soccer world for about 18 months, fooling many into thinking that there might be a (narcissistic) man on planet earth who should be mentioned in the same breath as he. Heck, Leo even went out to a couple nightclubs, allowed transfer rumors to fester and started a tiff with his coach -- perhaps seeing if we mortals had begun taking him for granted.

This season La Pulga reminded one and all that whether you measure greatness by scoring, passing, dribbling or winning, you’ll probably have better luck finding the fountain of youth while divining the riddle of alchemy -- than finding another Messi.

Welcome back Leo, the planet is yours to dribble where you may. We trust your judgment, and your close control around those tricky meteors …

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