Well it is over for another year. They may still have three games remaining, but, it is all academic now. Barcelona have reclaimed La Liga from Real Madrid. This year they are Spanish champions once again and they did not even have to kick one ball to secure the League title this time around. Real Madrid did the honours for them by only mustering a draw away to Espanyol on Saturday night. By the time Barcelona and Atletico kicked off at the Vicente Calderon 24 hours later, all was done and dusted.
And, this might go some way to explaining the Catalans’ rather uninspiring display down by the River Manzares. They looked every bit a side with nothing more to play for. Not that their hosts were any better.
Ahead of his side’s clash with Barcelona on Sunday night, Diego Simeone was talking up a good game: “I will play my first team because I want maintain their intensity. We have a responsibility to do the right thing and play well and be competitive”.
With third spot in the bag and with the final of the Copa del Rey on Friday against Real Madrid, Simeone’s decision to play his first team – minus Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Mario Suarez – in order to keep up the intensity, had the complete opposite effect. The Atleti players seemed more focused on avoiding injury and fatigue in what was a hot and sunny Madrid afternoon.
The stage was all set then for a rather tame affair and the first half did not surprise. Ponderous, slow and littered with mistakes, the end of the first 45 could not come quick enough as both sides laboured in the heat. One half-time stat told the story – just two shots on target in the whole first half.
However, the game’s entertainment value certainly improved after the break. Ten minutes had not elapsed when Radamel Falcao – for the third consecutive game – found the net against the Azulgrana. A defensive mistake from Marc Bartra was pounced on by the hosts, who surged forward with Gabi to eventually find Falcao in space, and the Colombian did the rest.
The goal did not exactly spark Barcelona into life like one would have imagined and shortly after they then suffered a major setback. Without consulting anyone, Lionel Messi discreetly walked off the pitch after suffering an injury. Having already used his three substitutions, the Argentine’s exit from the field left Tito Vilanova’s side with 10 men for the remainder of the match. The home crowd must have surely been thinking that this was going to be their afternoon.
Not quite. Despite being down a man, Tito Vilanova’s side clawed one back through Alexis Sanchez after some good link-up play with Cesc Fabregas. Just eight minutes later, and not for the first time this season, Atletico played their part in their own demise. A Cristian Tello cut-back found David Villa, whose shot was going well wide before Gabi comically knocked the ball back on path and into his own net.
It was a painful finish to the match for Atletico as memories of that equally painful home loss to a second-string Real Madrid side a month ago came flooding back. Barca, meanwhile, could finally start to celebrate their latest triumph.
Just as it was for their city rivals, the weekend did not bring any joy to Los Blancos either. Outplayed at Cornella, Jose Mourinho’s side were perhaps lucky not to be beaten outright. Espanyol could have had three in the opening period but had to settle for a solitary strike from Christian Stuani. In the second half, Gonzalo Higuain headed his side equal and that was how it stayed.
Madrid’s failure to win away was a fitting way to finally gift Barcelona the League crown – from the beginning it was on the road where their title challenge was lost. Last season as champions, they dropped seven points in total compared to 19 points this season.
The poor cousin of both Atletico and Real Madrid were also left empty-handed. Rayo Vallecano capitulated at home to a sterling exhibition from Valencia who thumped four goals beyond their hosts. Roberto Soldado lead by example, scoring twice as his side made a point that they belong in the top four. With a game in hand however, Real Sociedad may have something to say about this still.