Barcelona took a giant step today towards their third consecutive La Liga title. The Catalans won 1-0 at El Madrigal, courtesy of Gerard Piqué, while their closest followers Real Madrid succumbed to a shocking home defeat at the hands of Sporting Gijon, putting Barcelona eight points clear at the top with only eight matches remaining.
Today's match showed that this Barcelona team really do deserve to be crowned champions of Spain again. El Madrigal is one of the toughest venues in Spain. Villareal are an excellent team, certainly the second best passing team in the world right now (after Barcelona) and one of the main contenders to win this year's Europa League. As if facing such a strong opponent were not enough, Barcelona had to do it without Puyol, Abidal, Xavi and Pedro, while Messi started on the bench as a precaution.
Given the absences mentioned above, Pep Guardiola gave the nod to Keita, Javier Mascherano, Ibrahim Afellay and, most surprisingly, to the B team player Thiago Alcantara. The 19-year-old Spaniard had such a magnificent performance orchestrating Barcelona's game that Xavi's absence was barely noticed. He proved that he deserves to be promoted to the first team next season and that Barcelona's midfield has its future assured, regardless of whether Cesc Fabregas returns home or not.
Javier Mascherano was also immense, and was arguably Barcelona's best outfield player. Ibrahim Afellay is getting better with each match, but not yet showing his true potential.
Will Barcelona Three-Peat?
But the hero of the day was indisputably Victor Valdés, who might have single-handedly gave Barcelona the league title today. If his three first half saves were world-class, his save in the dying minutes of the game was nothing short of miraculous, arguably the save of the year in all European leagues! A world-class performance from a world-class keeper.
Barcelona are used to destroying their opponents, but today, they really had to grind it out to win. The first half was especially difficult for the Catalans, as they failed to create a single clear cut chance and were somewhat lucky to be still in the game. In the second half, everything changed. Messi's inclusion inspired the team to improve and chances started coming. Surprisingly, Barcelona's goal came from a corner; the outstanding Sergio Busquets (who played as a centre back today) headed the ball to Piqué, who put it in the back of the net.
It was a win worthy for champions. Barcelona have such a big lead at this point, and the Clásico on 16 April will hardly be relevant to the final standings. Real Madrid might possess the most expensive squad of all-time and one of the world's best managers, but that's not enough to defeat this Barcelona side, who are regarded by most as one of the best of all-time.
With the league title almost wrapped up, Barcelona now shift their focus to the UEFA Champions League, where they'll face an excellent Shakhtar Donetsk side on Wednesday in the first leg of the quarterfinals. After a relatively easy route to the quarterfinals (no offense to Panathinaikos, Rubin Kazan, FC Copenhagen and Arsenal), the going starts to get tough now and Pep Guardiola's side must show that they have what it takes to become the champions of Europe.
But the league is theirs to lose at this point. The way the players celebrated after the match showed that they fully understand what this victory meant. After today, only a miracle can make Barcelona lose the league.