Barca wins 3rd straight title, denies Madrid again

Barca wins 3rd straight title, denies Madrid again

Published May. 11, 2011 11:08 p.m. ET

Inspired by the prolific Lionel Messi, Barcelona confirmed its dominance of Spanish football by claiming a third straight league title - and maybe more significantly, condemned a revitalized Real Madrid to the runner-up spot once again.

With two games remaining, Messi has scored 31 league goals, helping Barcelona to its fifth win in seven seasons and 21st in the club's 111-year-old history. The title was sealed with Wednesday's 1-1 draw at Levante.

But this crown is more than ever about one thing: leaving Real Madrid in second. Barca's bitter rivals will finish runners-up for the third year in a row in a season featuring an unprecedented five ''clasico'' derbies that also saw Barcelona knock Madrid out of the Champions League to reach the final at Wembley.

''Madrid is always tough, regardless of whoever its president, coach or players are,'' Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said. ''Each title is difficult to win, but this one was even more so.''


Messi highlighted the importance of the team's togetherness in the face of a revitalized Madrid.

''We have been very united this year that has been very hard because we were up against a tough rival in Real Madrid,'' Messi said. ''Now, it is time to enjoy it.''

Arguably, Guardiola's greatest success was keeping his squad focused on the weekly grind of the domestic league while Madrid counterpart Jose Mourinho brought the historically simmering tensions between the clubs to an outright boil with his accusations of alleged favoritism by referees and league officials toward the Catalan team.

''The league is the most important competition of the year,'' was Guardiola's season-long mantra. ''The most glamorous competition is the Champions League, but without a doubt the league demonstrates which team has been the strongest, more than any other competition.''

Barcelona's dominant play saw it rewrite the records books: it broke a 50-year league record with 16 consecutive away wins and smashed a club record by going 31 rounds without losing.

The team also relished a historic 5-0 dismantling of Real Madrid at Camp Nou.

But Guardiola's third title in as many years at the helm of Barcelona has the most merit because it came after a season-long duel with Mourinho, Europe's most successful coach in recent memory who employed all his talents in the media to try to unnerve his normally cool-headed opponent.

''When I coach against (Mourinho) and when I watch his games on television, I want to learn a lot,'' said Guardiola in response to Mourinho's claims that UEFA had helped Barcelona beat his team 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal clash.

''But off the pitch, I try to learn very little.''

The league title decisively tilts the balance in Guardiola's favor. Mourinho took home the Copa del Rey with a dramatic 1-0 extra-time victory, but it surely is little solace while Barcelona celebrates its league crown and prepares for the Champions League final against Manchester United.

Guardiola's Barcelona can make an argument to be on a par with, or even a step above, the ''Dream Team'' of Johan Cruyff, which won four straight league titles at the beginning of the Nineties and engineered a style of play that this current squad has fine tuned.

While the battle in the postgame news conferences drew most of the attention, the key to Barcelona's continued success was on the pitch and in the locker room.

Xavi and Andres Iniesta continued to perform their roles as distributor and creator, while Sergio Busquets emerged from Spain's World Cup win as one of the premiere defensive midfielders in the game.

Barcelona also managed to not lose a step after several players- above all in defense- fell to injury late in the season. The gravest of which was France left back Eric Abidal, who has made a speedy recovery from surgery to remove a liver tumor.

''The worst thing about this season was Abidal's (tumor), but at the same time it was the best thing because he has recovered,'' said Guardiola. ''Overall, it was another excellent year in the league.''

Guardiola has acknowledged that perhaps he made a mistake in having a relatively small squad this season, but his faith in bringing up B-teamers has proven to be one of the defining traits of his continued success.

This season Guardiola completed the remodeling of his team into one of the most exquisite attacking sides ever seen. Guardiola replaced striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic with David Villa, who willingly took the role of becoming just one more cog in Barcelona's sleek passing machine built around the boot of Messi.

Gone are days of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o, this team is finally totally Messi's.

Not only is the Argentina forward three league goals shy of last season's personal best- but he has also quietly made a league-leading 17 assists, adding to his more than strong bid to win a third straight Ballon D'Or come January.

''Leo, when he has to score, he does, and if not, he passes or helps to defend,'' said Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who is on track to allow the least number of goals in the league for the third consecutive season. ''He is a genius in everything he does. We cannot ask anything more of him.''

Fittingly, Messi's most important goals of the year served to sink the hopes of Real Madrid in the Champions League. His second goal at Santiago Bernabeu stadium when he ghosted by five defenders before firing past Iker Casillas as he fell to the ground embodies his team's spectacular season.