Barcelona Recapture the League, but How Successful Was Vilanova's Debut?
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With Madrid's draw at Catalan rivals Espanyol Saturday night, Barcelona reclaimed the league title without kicking a ball.
It was a long time coming, with Los Blancos trailing the Blaugrana by a healthy margin for almost the entirety of the season. But the manner of Madrid's handing the trophy over raises the question: Did Barcelona earn it?
The Blaugrana are surely the most deserving team in Spain, and they'll be delighted at having wrested the league crown from the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho and the rest. But Madrid's latest mistake merely underscores the fact that the Madridistas put Barca well on track to be champions back in September.
As the wealth disparity grows between Spain's top two clubs and the rest, so grows the points gap. It would be a colossal surprise to see another club—even Atletico Madrid—win the title over the next several years. (This is the team, after all, that just blew a late home lead to a 10-man Barcelona, with Lionel Messi off the pitch.) And so Madrid's early stumble turned the now traditional two-horse race into a largely one-horse affair.
Did Barcelona earn the league title, or was it handed to them by Madrid's slip-ups?
All of which contributes to the uneasy feeling of dissatisfaction in many a Barca supporter's heart. Does La Liga feel like a true victory when the one team that can really compete didn't show up to play?
Barca supporters came into the season expecting it all—another double or treble to match the glory days of 2009 and 2011. The soul-searching that followed their disastrous exit to Munich in the Champions League has surely just begun.
And they seemed to start the season off well enough, breaking records in the league for fun on the backs of the incredible form of Messi and the midfielders. (Remember when Fabregas was having the year of his career? How quickly things change.)
But either the records were born from fixtures against the minnows of La Liga, masking larger problems below the surface, or the form that brought them was unsustainable.
Barcelona's awkward position is in many ways a problem of their own making: after achieving such incredible success over the last few seasons and hanging on to such well-decorated players, the expectations have understandably been set astronomically high. Will they now be recalibrated to reflect the growing power and influence of Europe's other clubs?
These questions aren't merely abstract. One of the temptations now facing the management will be to replace the "old guard" in an attempt to reclaim the team's place at the pinnacle of world football.
But they should be wary of overreacting. Xavi may not be quite the incredible playmaker he was two or three years ago. But that doesn't mean he's not still the best that Barca have got.
The big question for Barcelona at season's end is whether the players will be able to reignite their competitive edge in Europe come fall, even as the domestic league remains, for the foreseeable future, a "pas de deux."
In the meantime, they'll have to be content with their 22nd league trophy. With 10 more to go before they match Madrid's record 32, they'll certainly cherish taking it.
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