Brilliant Barcelona’s low-key La Liga title should not be underestimated

Perhaps with time, Ernesto Valverde and his team sealing a first unbeaten Spanish league title since 1932 will be more valued

Sid Lowe

Mon 30 Apr 2018 14.31 BST Last modified on Mon 30 Apr 2018 17.25 BST
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates with the squad after winning the league title.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates with the squad after winning the league title. Photograph: Miguel Vidal/Reuters
The league came to a close at both ends of Riazor, two human circles forming. Deportivo de La Coruña’s players joined together, arms around each other, for a few final words offered quietly and sadly in the rain. As they broke, there were some whistles and they walked slowly towards the tunnel and the second division, relegated again. The manager, their third this season, told them to go with their heads held high, insisting “we’re not angry, we’re unhappy”, but most looked down as they left, eyes lost. In the stands above, there were tears and reproach. Do you understand that, Celso Borges was asked, stopping briefly before departing. “Yes, of course,” he said. “We shouldn’t feel ashamed, but these are difficult moments and it’s hard to digest.”

As he talked, or tried to, behind him another circle had formed: bigger, looser and louder. FC Barcelona’s squad and staff were dancing a sardana, going round and round holding hands. Both clubs had known it was coming but it came together, still in April. A 4-2 victory, secured with a Leo Messi hat-trick, meant the final relegation place was confirmed and so was the league title. Deportivo are down with Las Palmas and Málaga; Barcelona are champions again. That’s seven of the last 10. “Una barbariedad,” Sergio Busquets called it: amazing, incredible, madness, barbaric. They’re champions four games early and unbeaten, cup winners as well. “That’s a barbariedad too,” he said. “Almost perfect.”

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“How do you feel?” Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde was asked. “I don’t know,” he started, which is how he starts a lot of answers, “like someone who has just won the league”. But he also felt a little bad: “Going down hurts a lot,” he admitted and Barcelona didn’t stay out on Deportivo’s pitch for long. Over 1,000km away, some fans gathered on the Ramblas. “My son has climbed up a tree, celebrating,” one woman told a radio reporter. “And how old is your son?” she was asked. “Twenty-eight,” she replied. Back at Riazor, the players ducked into the dressing room, where celebratory T-shirts were pulled on, but it was a little low-key, and not just because of Depor. They took a few photos, shouted campeones a bit, and then set off. On Monday night, they will ride a bus around the city.

“I would love to be up here, all this going to my head, throwing confetti around, but I’m a more or less normal bloke,” Valverde said. “I imagine that when time passes I’ll realise this doesn’t happen every day. I suppose that’s the problem with winning it with four games left. If it was the last minute of the last day, maybe we would still be out there. We wouldn’t be happier, but maybe we would be more expressive. But I’m very pleased.”

There was certainly something in that. In part, it is precisely what makes this success so impressive – the first unbeaten league title since 1932, when the season was only 18 games long, and the earliest title won in 20 years – that meant they didn’t let go entirely. They were too good for there to be much drama, an explosion; and for some there’s a risk that this feels like just another league, the ninth won by Messi and Andrés Iniesta, 38% of all those Barça have won, and the seventh for Gerard Piqué and Busquets. In the end, before the end, they won it comfortably: 11 points clear of Atlético Madrid, 15 of Real Madrid, with four games still to go, the only team in Europe’s major leagues still unbeaten having led from the start.

Perhaps with time it will be valued more, particularly if they do finish the season undefeated – Madrid go to the Camp Nou next weekend – which would make it a unique, historic achievement and the cover of El Mundo Deportivo shouted: “Invictus!” Sport said: “There’s nothing better than a double.”

Messi in action during Barcelona’s win at Depor.
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Messi in action during Barcelona’s win at Depor. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
But there is, of course: a treble. They won it away at Deportivo dressed in Roma’s colours, and there was a certain irony in that. For all the success, defeat in Rome has “marked” their season, Valverde admitted. Busquets described it as a “thorn” in their side. Not just because it was so humiliating, a 4-1 lead overturned, but because it was deserved and because it didn’t feel so out-of-keeping with their season. Instead, it seemed to reflect a recent trend: their last four away games in the knock-out phase are two 3-0 defeats, a 4-0 defeat and a fortunate 1-1 draw; they have been eliminated in the quarter-final three years running; and somehow it felt like something like that was coming, underlined the suspicion Barcelona hadn’t always been that good this season.

Then there’s the Real Madrid factor, and it is familiar. This is the eighth double Barcelona have won, twice as many as anyone else. The first two were in 1952 and 1953, the seasons before Alfredo Di Stéfano arrived at Madrid and in the pre-European Cup era. Since then, they won it in 1959, 1998, 2009, 2015, 2016 and 2018. Twice they won the European Cup with it, doubles becoming trebles but the three other times Real Madrid have won the European Cup. This season could be the fourth – and that impacts upon the way it is received.