It was all about Atletico Madrid as Barcelona won its 26th La Liga title on Sunday. Nearly one year after Atleti went to Barca and won the league, Barca headed to Atleti on the penultimate day of the season and took it back, thanks to another moment of genius from Lionel Messi. This time, Diego Simeone’s men lacked the firepower to find an equalizer, but that probably would have only disrupted Barca’s title run-in, anyways, as a win against relegation-threatened Deportivo La Coruna next weekend would have made the destiny of the title absolutely certain regardless of Sunday’s result.
Even so, Barca’s first title win since the untimely death of Tito Vilanova, who guided the Blaugrana to the 2012-13 title, was still all about Atleti.
As several pundits have already pointed out, Barca’s season didn’t really begin until the first game between these teams at the Camp Nou on Janu. 11. At the time, coach Luis Enrique’s team was in total disarray following a 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad in the opening game of the new year—a game in which Enrique decided to bench both Messi and Neymar after granting the pair additional time off from Christmas break. The day after the loss, Messi, who had been giving vague interviews in which he intimated that this season could be his last at Barca, missed training with “gastroenteritis,” sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was fired, and Barca legend Carles Puyol resigned from his post in solidarity with Zubizarreta. Later, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu called for elections in the summer in order “to reduce the tension” at the Camp Nou.
Enrique, meanwhile, seemed certain to lose his job, especially if Barca, which was in lock-step with both Real and Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga table, failed to beat Simeone’s men.
At that time, you would have put money on Barca failing to beat Atleti and the increasingly unpopular Enrique being fired. Instead, Barca played a superb match in which Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez each scored in the same game for the first time ever (this would later become a theme), in a 3-1 over the reigning La Liga champ.
After that, “Everything changed,” Messi later admitted.
According to the Daily Mail, it was captain Xavi Hernandez who brought the team together. Apparently, the two-time European champion and World Cup winner with Spain, who had practically packed his bags for MLS and New York City FC before Enrique was hired and later convinced him to stay, carved out a message aimed at Messi, who obviously did not get along with Enrique at the time. “Continue like this and we are finished,” Xavi said to the team, adding: "It’ll be unacceptable to have another season without a serious trophy.”
In the end, beating Atletico was the start of an epic run of form for the Blaugrana in which it took 52 of the next 57 points on offer in the league, winning 17, drawing one, and losing one before arriving at Atletico on Sunday with the La Liga title in sight. And that was just the league: in all, Barca has won 29 and lost just two in 32 games in all competitions since Jan. 11, and now stands a very good chance of winning the Spanish King’s Cup and UEFA Champions League, too.
But let’s not forget that Real Madrid, Barca’s closest challenger for the title this season, was hot on its heels for most of the campaign until the 2-2 draw with Valencia at the Bernabeu on May 9. However, in the end, it was their respective records against Atleti that proved to be the difference in the title race, as Real lost both games (2-1 at home and 4-0 away) while Barca took six points from Simeone’s men.
Similarly, in the Spanish King’s Cup, Atleti proved to be Real’s Achilles’ heel once more, winning the two-game round of 16 series between the teams 4-2 on aggregate. In the very next round, Barca would assert its dominance over Simeone & co with a 4-2 aggregate win of its own. Next up for Barca will be Athletic Bilbao in the King’s Cup final on May 30, before the UCL final against Juventus on June 6.
Indeed, with one trophy in the bag and two still to play for, it’s highly unlikely that Enrique won’t be offered the chance to see his Barca contract out no matter what happens in these last two games, but with his Spanish champions having now scored 98 goals in 32 games, its hard to see any other outcome than a Barca treble.
Nevertheless, rumors persist that the former Barca midfielder could yet depart this summer, anyways. Maybe his relationship with Messi isn’t repaired after all?