FC Barcelona did not have it all their own way in Europe this season and their UEFA Champions League semi-final demolition by FC Bayern München is still raw, but they were a class above the opposition in the Liga title race.
With Real Madrid CF failing to beat RCD Espanyol on Saturday, Barcelona have been crowned Liga champions for the 22nd time and for the fourth in five years. They did so with four games to spare, and celebrated in style by fighting back from a goal down to triumph 2-1 at Club Atlético de Madrid on Sunday.
It completes an impressive debut Liga campaign from Tito Vilanova, assistant to Josep Guardiola last term when José Mourinho's Madrid finished top of the pile. He seemed at home from the start. "I knew this wasn't going to be the best moment to face them; what with it being Tito's first game in charge," said Real Sociedad de Fútbol coach Philippe Montanier after a 5-1 loss at Camp Nou on the opening day. "I saw huge drive. They want to win the title this season, that's abundantly clear."
Indeed, that match signalled the beginning of a record-breaking unbeaten league run of 19 games – 18 of them wins – before Real Sociedad gained revenge in January, recovering from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Yet the damage had been done: by then, Barcelona were 11 points clear of Atlético, with Madrid a further seven adrift. "
They are as powerful as ever and play with the same style," said Athletic Club coach Marcelo Bielsa, on the receiving end of another 5-1 scoreline.
"There is also that same feeling that they can constantly unbalance you with whatever type of pass in whatever area of the pitch," he added. CA Osasuna boss José Luis Mendilibar (whose team lost – you guessed it – 5-1 in Catalonia) went further, saying: "When Barça are in form, it doesn't matter how you try to play against them. They would have to make a lot of mistakes for you to get a result."
It helps when you have Lionel Messi, who has once again provided the lion's share of goals – 46 and counting – despite a thigh injury that has left him struggling for fitness over the past five weeks. Did that injury cost Barcelona the UEFA Champions League? Impossible to tell, but nothing has hampered their Liga progress. Messi has taken to adding starring cameos to his repertoire.
Last weekend the Blaugrana were drawing 2-2 at home to Real Betis Balompié when Messi came on just before the hour. Within 15 minutes, he had scored twice. "He influenced everything when he came on, even the crowd;
you just can't do anything about it," Betis coach Pepe Mel said. "He scored with his first touch and later did one move where it was as if he was dribbling around cones."
Messi could yet match last season's half-century of Liga goals. He has already struck an unprecedented 26 top-flight goals away from home and became the first player to score against every other Liga side consecutively – 19 in a row. "Leo has always been decisive," Vilanova, 44, explained, though he credits the success to a collective effort. "We have shown consistency. Madrid put in an extraordinary second half to the campaign; had we slipped up, we would have suffered [the consequences]."
Andrés Iniesta added: "There aren't words to describe the merits of winning this title. When the team suffers, the fans do; it works the other way too, so when we win trophies it's not only for us, it's also for the supporters. That the team have won the Liga means it has been a good season and I am certain that with the base of this side in place we are good enough to compete and win again next year."
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