La Liga belongs to Barca again as dominance leaves rivals in turmoil

Photo: AFP

Barcelona may yet prove they are the best team in Europe but they are indisputably the best in Spain after they wrapped up their fourth La Liga title in five years on Saturday.

Barca are now nine points clear of Atletico Madrid with three games left to play, while Real Madrid look set to finish a second consecutive season trailing the champions by double figures in terms of points.

The failings of Real, who now own the pitiful record of winning the league only once in seven years, are laid bare by the table but a smaller margin flatters Atletico too, masking what has, in truth, been a procession for the best part of four months.

"Our first goal is consistency, being the best every day," Ernesto Valverde said in September.

At the start of January, Barca's advantage was five points, February six, March seven and April eight. Some then hoped there could be a race when they drew 4-4 at Villarreal but a few days later they had beaten Atletico and that was that.

The stuttering form of those beneath them has certainly helped. Even if Barcelona had collapsed, Real were too far behind to capitalise while Atletico, fragile away from home, have never looked capable of the winning run required.

"For us next year, the league must be our number one priority," Real coach Zinedine Zidane said on Wednesday.

But the faults of the Madrid pair belong to them not Barca, who have now been crowned kings of Spain eight times in 11 years, a period of dominance that was started by the historic treble-team of Pep Guardiola, consolidated under Luis Enrique and now elongated by Valverde.

"What we have done over the last years will go down in history," said Sergio Busquets.

Valverde ignoring doubters

Valverde may never convince those who take his pragmatism to be a sign of mediocrity and his veering from the iconic style of Guardiola as contrary to the ideals of Barcelona.

Winning the Champions League would surely appease the doubters, particularly if it amounted to Valverde's own treble, with a Copa del Rey final against Valencia to come next month in Seville.

"We have to close out the title as soon as possible, without letting go," Lionel Messi said. "Then we can think about Liverpool and the semi-finals."

But the reputation of this Barcelona team, and their coach, is unfairly shaped by what has gone before, not least because most of those players have gone too. Messi, Busquets and Gerard Pique were the only ones present both in 2009 and 2019.

Instead, Valverde adapted, by retaining some of the old, attacking verve while adding athleticism, shape and defensive discipline. When he arrived, two Super Cup defeats to Madrid prompted Pique to admit Barca felt inferior. Not now.

Madrid, thrashed 5-1, Huesca, hammered 8-2, Sevilla, twice beaten 4-2, Espanyol, Levante and Real Betis, each sent packing 4-0, 5-0 and 4-1 respectively, are all testament to this Barcelona's exhilarating streak.

Messi's 34 goals are too. If he can find four more in the three games left, it will be his best La Liga return since his 43 in 2015. His partner, Luis Suarez, has 21 and together, they have scored more than every team in the division except Real Madrid and Sevilla.

Strong supporting cast

But it was far from a two-man show. Many times, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen came to the rescue while Jordi Alba has scored and assisted more goals than any other defender in the league.

Pique has been immense in recent months and alongside him Clement Lenglet has made light of an injury-spoiled year for Samuel Umtiti.

Arthur Melo looks a future star in midfield while Ousmane Dembele's early problems with fitness and indiscipline have given way to the scintillating talent that convinced Barca he was worth 105 million euros two years ago.

There have been concerns too. Defensively, Barcelona were suspect until Christmas and Busquets, who turns 31 in July, has too often been exposed in midfield. Both issues could yet resurface against Liverpool next week.

Philippe Coutinho left Anfield to join the elite but is yet to find his place. The January signings of Jeison Murillo and, in particular, Kevin-Prince Boateng were bizarre.

But none of those blips derailed the dominance of Barca. Instead, Real Madrid were persuaded to sack their coach, twice, while Atletico kept theirs but now face an exodus of players in the summer.

For both, uncertainty is the result of inferiority. Neither could argue that in 2018/19, Barcelona were not, by a distance, better than the rest.

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