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Barca faces long summer despite title

DOUBTS LINGER
Lionel Messi helped spearhead Barcelona's title charge over rival Real Madrid this season.
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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MADRID, SPAIN

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Real Madrid's failure to beat Espanyol on Saturday evening sealed Barcelona’s 22nd Primera Division title, in a 2012-13 Spanish season which will be remembered for head coach Tito Vilanova’s illness and talisman Lionel Messi’s extraordinary goal-scoring exploits.

Sergio Busquets anticipated the sweetness of the victory when speaking with reporters after training on Wednesday.

“A fourth La Liga title in five years will be spectacular,” Busquets said. “To win a league is always a dream and even more in a league this difficult. This La Liga campaign has even more important because of the problems we lived through with Tito [Vilanova] and [Eric] Abidal, it was difficult. The joy is doubled. All ‘cules’ are super proud of this team, they realize the value of this title.”

The result at Barca's city rivals Espanyol started the champagne corks popping elsewhere in Catalonia, but the title race had long been over.

Vilanova's team began the season with a record-breaking 16 wins and one draw [against Madrid at home] from its first 17 games. Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho’s record breaking 2011-12 champions, were riven by injury and dressing-room discord. At the winter break, Barca’s closest challengers were Atletico Madrid who suffered an embarrassing 4-1 drubbing at the Camp Nou. Mourinho’s side spent the holiday season a distant third, a full 13 points off the top.

This lightning start answered those who had questioned how Barca would react to the departure of its inspirational coach Josep Guardiola at the end of last season. But the former assistant stepped in seamlessly, and the team looked more relaxed with Pep’s micromanagement approach replaced by Tito’s hands-off style.

The first speed-bump was a serious one - news in mid-December that Vilanova needed an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from a saliva gland. He then spent most of February and March in New York receiving further medical treatment, remaining in contact with assistant Jordi Roura and the players via the internet and mobile phone.

While blaugrana directors, coaches and players all tried to treat the situation as normal, it was far from ideal and the team’s results suffered. Individual performances dipped too – with injury and loss of form blunting the contributions of mainstays including Gerard Pique, Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas. Abidal returned from his liver transplant operation, but could only play a minor role.

Yet still Barca remained on top. Mourinho’s presumed plan of using imagined internal and external enemies to build a stronger team core blew up in his face. Radamel Falcao’s goals and a strong defense was enough to ensure the third spot for Atletico, though they were not enough to mount a real title push. Even when Madrid beat a limp-looking Barca 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu in early March, not even the “Special One” believed that his side still had a chance of catching the leaders.

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Thankfully for all Barca supporters, Lionel Messi’s form silenced the doubters. His feat of scoring in 19 straight league games – or to put in another way, consecutively against every other Primera Division outfit – was unprecedented. Even while hampered in recent weeks by the thigh injury which helped derail Barca’s Champions League campaign, his own La Liga record of 50 goals, set just last year, looks in serious danger. With Cristiano Ronaldo’s tally affected by his own admission of sadness earlier in the season, nobody comes close.

Barca’s only problem with wrapping up the title ahead of schedule is that the triumph seems like a fading memory. The pain of the recent 7-0 aggregate Champions League semifinal exit to Bayern Munich remains much sharper. Instead of celebrating the team’s achievements this season, the Catalan media is already debating which improvements need to be made, which players sold and which brought in.

Perhaps this was why everyone at the club was so keen to highlight the size of its accomplishment after last Sunday’s 3-2 win over Real Betis at the Camp Nou had all but secured the trophy.

"We have had a good season," said Barcelona defender Jordi Alba. "In the Champions League semifinals we didn't rise to the occasion and Bayern showed it is playing at an incredible level. But we had a good season anyway. It seems to me that the league title is underappreciated."

NEVER TOO EARLY

Messi's defined his generation. So why not crown him the best ever?

While coach Vilanova insists there will be on overhaul of his squad this summer, it's clear Barcelona has been dethroned as Europe's premier side, leading defender Pique to say that "decisions will have to be made" this offseason.

For Tito, Messi and everyone at and around the club deserve to celebrate together what has been, especially in the circumstances, a richly merited title success.

FOXSoccer.com’s wire services contributed to this report.

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