Sunday night: the twenty minutes between Deportivo’s 63 minute equaliser in Riazor and the goal by Messi in the 83rd that guaranteed Barcelona’s 25th league title summed up why the Catalans have never really looked like stumbling from the podium this season.
Deportivo, for whom even a draw was no use, were beginning to threaten Barça’s unbeaten record and to look like they might delay their title celebrations. Çolak was starting to run the midfield and you could see the Depor fans looking up to hosts of cherubims dancing in the sky, blowing the golden trumpets of league survival. Hope’s a funny old thing, because it necessarily blinds you to reality. If you want to survive, it’s best not to think too rationally about the Great White that’s homing in on your arse. Just keep swimming, which is exactly what Depor did – forcing Ter Stegen into a couple of good saves and preserving the illusion, at the very least. But then Messi did his thing – a thing that no other mortal has been capable of since the first pig bladder flew through the 19th century air, and it was goodnight Coruña.
That’s been the pattern of this season. Barça remain undefeated, but have nevertheless shown more fallibility than in previous title-winning years. They have been on the edge of defeat several times this season, only for their little Argentine to suddenly click into extra-terrestrial mode and save the day. Not that this takes any credit away from the side as a whole, or from Valverde’s excellent stewardship, but this season has shown that if you were to take all your chances, Barcelona wouldn’t come back and bite you so easily. Unfortunately for the rest of La Liga, it required an Italian team to show exactly how to do that – or maybe Roma just got lucky on the night.
Whatever the truth, Barcelona have found new strengths from their pre-season loss of star personnel (Neymar), adjusting their powers towards a more pragmatic and often more thoughtful approach, working the different periods of matches better than in other campaigns, shifting the shape when taking a rest, or suddenly hitting the booster rockets when required – as in Sunday night’s display. No Spanish team has managed to overcome this since August, which is remarkable. In the relative absence of Iniesta, Ratikic has had his best season for Barça, just doing everything right , keeping things flowing, and the defence – despite occasional signs of vulnerability – has been fairly impermeable, to which only 21 goals conceded attest.
Over in Madrid, the feelings will be ambivalent. Had Barça lost this game, then next Sunday’s clásico in the Camp Nou would have retained a certain dose of caffeine. Now Zidane must stick to his guns and not ‘hacer pasillo’ (applaud the champions on) next week, despite the fact that Depor had the grace to applaud Barça onto the pitch on Sunday night as cup winners – although it’s questionable whether such a gesture was strictly necessary. For the league you tend to think that it is, and if RM decide to snub the occasion, they’ll be pilloried for it. Watch out for this during the week. North and South Korea may have ensured the world’s survival, but the main news item will be the ‘will they or won’t they’ – and Zidane said some weeks ago that they wouldn’t.
Will his president persuade him otherwise? It’ll be interesting to see. Whatever unfolds, Madrid’s only real motivation (assuming they finish off the job against Bayern on Tuesday) will be to deprive Barça of managing a season unbeaten. Barça’s other two games, away to Levante and home to Real Sociedad, are hardly going to fill them with existential dread. Madrid would of course prefer to finish second too, but the Champions League is now their only real concern. Their perfunctory performance (nice word, ‘perfunctory’) at home to Leganés was a possible cure for insomnia, despite the appearance of the group of players who were supposed to be playing for the first team this season, only to disappear without trace. Theo, Ceballos and Llorente all started, and played half decently. Straw Bale started too, and scored, but he’ll be back on the bench Tuesday night, one presumes.
At the end of the game in Riazor, it was interesting to see the contrasting fates of the two sides played out in such close juxtaposition. To Barça’s credit, led by the saintly Iniesta, the players celebrated briefly before going to console their fellow professionals. The Depor players had remained on the pitch staring vacantly into the distance like cows chewing on their cud. It’s never nice to be relegated, but it’s even worse when the team that’s just condemned you are celebrating a title. For once, Barça didn’t rub it in too much. They’re learning to be human, even Busquets, Alba and Luis Suárez.
Deportivo have not been quite as disastrous this season as the two sides below them (Málaga and Las Palmas) but their patent inability to defend (69 conceded) has condemned them, with only 34 scored. Lucas Pérez, Borja Valle, Emre Çolak and Micky Krohn-Delhi are all decent players, but the other semi-candidates for relegation at the start of the season, Levante, Leganes and Alavés, all performed better than expected. Depor went down in 2012 and again in 2014, but seem to make a habit of coming straight back. They seem more likely to return than the two sides accompanying them, unless financial restraints prompt the sale of their best players. Clarence Seedorf has shown that he might make a decent enough coach, given more propitious circumstances, but he might not fancy a long 2nd Division campaign nor the cut in wages that the relegation will probably signify.
Elsewhere, Atlético retained second place with a squeaky-bum 0-1 win at Alavés, in-between their semi-final shenanigans with Arsenal. There was a point in the league when Simeone’s troops got within five points of Barça’s shirt-tails, when the Catalans dropped their guard and drew three games in five against Las Palmas, Espanyol and Getafe, but the 1-0 win over Atlético in the Camp Nou in early March more or else decided the destination of the title. Valencia had looked keen up to Christmas, but ran out of fuel when winter kicked in. They have been, nevertheless, the revelation of the season, along with Girona.
Elsewhere, Real Sociedad won the Basque derby against Athletic in some style (3-1), helped nevertheless by a brace of own goals from Mikel San José. Iñigo Martinez, on his return to Anoeta, was mercilessly insulted by the home crowd from start to finish, but that’s what you get when you leave for Bilbao and declare that you’ve gone to a ‘great club’, implying that the one that you’ve left behind is not. Footballers are not, in general, members of Mensa Club, but it would help from time to time if they thought twice before opening their mouths. Martinez cannot complain at the treatment he received, rather brutal though it was for a player who had been at the club for twelve years. If you seek to provoke these days, folks will react. Whatever, Bilbao’s coach Cuco Ziganda is clearly a condemned man, and may even be gone before the end of the season.
Finally, the news that Joaquín Caparrós has come out of retirement to coach the dying embers of Sevilla for their last four games has got the press rumbling a bit. He’s usually good for a soundbite or two. The appointment represents Caparrós’ 21st job in coaching in 35 years, and the second time he’s been at Sevilla. Will he prove to be a nun or a whore, to quote his most famous declaration? He only intends to leave the nunnery/golf course for four games, but you never know. He’s certainly picked an interesting run-in, with Real Madrid at home and neighbours Betis away.
Anyway, congratulations to the champions. They deserved it by a mile and now they just need to put the icing on the cake next Sunday. Despite the look of anti-climax to the clásico next weekend, I still think the sparks are going to fly. Watch this space, and especially Ed’s preview on Friday.