So we have a champion in the top flight (Barcelona), and another closing on the title in the Second Division (Osasuna). With three games left to play, the Catalans and reigning champions decided to get the league business out of the way by defeating Levante 1-0 at home, Leo Messi once again the chief executor/executioner in the 62nd minute just as the visitors were beginning to get a little awkward. We might still be waiting had Morales’ shot not bounced off the post in the 89th minute – another example of Barcelona’s lucky-charm season but also an indication of how they tend to make their own fortune, of how they tend to take their own chances cleanly and not leave much to random chance. They host Liverpool on Wednesday in what should be an extraordinary occasion, possibly en route to a treble. Oh, and their women’s team beat Bayern to get into their first ever final of the Champions League too.
Atlético also deserve praise for keeping things alive for so long, also squeezing past relegation-haunted Valladolid by virtue of a single own-goal in the 66th minute, thus doing their homework and sitting back to await a miracle. As they say, miracles don’t often happen. Nevertheless, Atlético’s has been a highly respectable season, one in which they were predicted in some circles to stumble. In a sense, it was only to be expected that these two front-runners might benefit from the summer clusterf*** that took place in the Bernabéu, whose bad vibes then extended into a good half of their season. But Barça and Atlético still had to perform, mildly threatened at times by Sevilla but never remotely disturbed by Real Madrid. It has been an oddball season in that sense, but an entertaining one nonetheless.
Did Barcelona deserve it? Yep – and anyway, it’s rare that a team wins a league and doesn’t. Barça took the top spot in Week 3 after an 8-2 mauling of Huesca, dropped to 2nd in Week 8 after a draw at Valencia, recovered the top spot for another month before dropping to second again in Week 13, but subsequently did not look back in anger. It’s their 8th league title in the last 11 seasons, and their first in the post-Iniesta period. Overall, it’s their 26th since 1928, closing in on Madrid’s 33 but with some way to go yet. Zidane’s rather tetchy reply to a journalist last week, reminding him of this 7-league difference, revealed a lack of historical perspective, perhaps, from the Frenchman. Up to 1953, Barcelona competed on fairly even terms, despite the obvious hostility towards them from central government, but after Di Stéfano turned up that same season, from 1954 to 1990 Barcelona won a mere four league titles in 36 seasons. This puts their post-millennial achievements into stark perspective and raises the question of whether Zidane’s boast would have been more difficult to make had there been a democratically elected government in power instead of a 40-year dictatorship.
Before you reach to your keyboards to protest, I thought the point worth making on the night that Spain went to the polls for yet another General Election, its third in four years. Many things have influenced the course of Spanish history, but only two men have really influenced the course of Spanish football, and both of them were from Argentina. There were great players and protagonists before Alfredo di Stéfano, but once the fascist government realised that the Argentine was likely to tip the balance in Barcelona’s favour for some time to come (he was originally signed by Barça) they worked their jiggery-pokery and the rest is history – literally. You can read about it in my book ‘Morbo’ or in Sid Lowe’s ‘Fear and Loathing…’ but it changed the course both of Spain and of La Liga’s history. Right up to Messi’s debut in 2004, no event was comparable to that stealing of Di Stéfano, in terms of influence. One is tempted to conclude, although it may be revisionist silliness, that in pre-democracy times, Leo Messi would not have lasted long at La Masia.
Forgive me for this observation, for even though I have never bought into the theory that Real Madrid were ‘favoured’ by Franco and his acolytes, it remains true that under the dictatorship, people knew their place and they knew how to keep their heads down. Barcelona’s poor record for those wilderness years was not entirely due to Real Madrid’s hegemony, it’s true – but the very fact that they’ve won 17 from the 26 in the period of democracy from 1978 would seem to suggest something.
Whatever, let’s not get distracted. Barça have remained rock-steady in a season that did not begin in particularly spectacular fashion. By Week 13, they had lost twice and drawn four times, the extraordinary 3-4 home defeat by Betis giving everyone hope. Alas, there were to be no more slip-ups, and even when the chips seemed down, as at Villarreal, they still came back to draw 4-4. Defensively speaking, with the new pairing of Piqué and Lenglet taking some time to get oiled, the season has not been a complete triumph, with 31 goals conceded so far. They did concede 37 in the 2016-17 season, but they also scored 116 as opposed to 86 so far this. It’s become a measure of their achievements that we look for the smallest flaw in their record, a chink of light through some crack in their otherwise solid edifice. They may have ‘only’ scored 86, but their nearest rivals are Real Madrid and Sevilla on a very ordinary 59.
And in defence, Piqué has been fantastic for most of the season, after a poorish start, as has Jordi Alba. Messi and Suarez have contributed 55 league goal between them , and the two have utterly terrorised the collective defence of the rest, a result of Messi’s maturing genius and Suarez’ ludicrously driven competitiveness. He gives them their weekly bite, if you’ll excuse the phrase, and Vidal has been a willing accomplice in this post-softie phase. Dembélé appears to be coming of age, Arthur looks awesome at times, and there is Riqui Puig to come, not to mention Frenkie De Jong. It’s looking as scary as ever. If Coutinho is the weak link, then he’s a weak link who every team in Spain would like to have in their ranks.
Meanwhile, on the weekend when Barça lifted the trophy, Real Madrid lost 1-0 down the road in Vallecas, their tenth defeat of a sorry-looking season – by their standards anyway. Serves them right for not letting Raúl de Tomas play, but at least they have given their little neighbours hope after the blow earlier in the day when Girona surprisingly beat Sevilla 1-0 for only their third home win of the season. Rayo travel to Levante next week, and if they could get a result it would leave them with a penultimate game against fellow-strugglers Valladolid. If they’re both still alive by then, that won’t be a game for the faint of heart. Similarly, Barcelona visit Celta in-between their Liverpool games, which rather suggests that in their league-wining afterglow, Celta will benefit from a Barça ‘B’ team and probably seal their escape from relegation. Huesca are not down yet, and refuse to go gentle into that good night – but they’re 7 off Girona with 9 points to play for. It’s looking grim, but they had a decent time while it lasted. I’d expect them to bounce back, if they can keep the side together.
Below Barcelona and Atlético, things went a little awry for Valencia, Sevilla and Getafe, who all lost. The status quo was preserved, but Getafe missed a great chance to cement 4th position when they lost (deservedly) to Real Sociedad, 2-1 away. Valencia lost 0-1 at home to Eibar in extra time – a most unexpected result, but with Huesca, Alavés and Valladolid in the last three games, they should be able to sneak that 4th spot.
Anyway, the season ain’t over yet and this week’s Champions League stuff looks very tasty indeed. A Barcelona v Ajax final? That would be pretty resonant, apart from being a great game. But both semis are wonderfully unpredictable. Enjoy.