El Clasico double over Real Madrid and other crucial victories for Barcelona in 26th La Liga triumph

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Barcelona won both El Clasicos on the way to the title.

Barcelona were confirmed as La Liga champions for the fourth time in five years on Saturday after defeating Levante 1-0.

Barca have wrapped up the title with three games to play as they sit nine points ahead of Atletico Madrid, against whom they also own a superior head-to-head.

Here, we pick five games that were key to the Catalans being crowned champions for the 26th time in their history.

Sets the tone – Barcelona 5-1 Real Madrid, October 28

The first Clasico in 11 years without Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo marked the end of an era while also bringing to a close Julen Lopetegui’s turbulent three months as Real Madrid coach.

Lopetegui was sacked the following day after Luis Suarez had ran riot in the injured Messi’s absence, scoring a hat-trick at the Camp Nou that set the tone for the rest of the season. Madrid’s inferiority was laid bare and Barcelona would never look back.

Suarez ran riot with a hat-trick.

Suarez ran riot with a hat-trick.

Rhythm restored – Sevilla 2-4 Barcelona, February 23

A rare wobble in February had given hope to the chasing pack while prompting concerns about the team’s form and Messi’s fitness. The Argentinian, after suffering a thigh strain, had scored only one goal in four games, with Barca managing just a single win in five.

But both silenced the doubters at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, where Messi scored his 50th career hat-trick in a mesmeric 4-2 victory that put Barca back on track, just in time for a double-header against Real Madrid.

Messi hat-trick overpowers Sevilla.

Messi hat-trick overpowers Sevilla.

In sight of the title – Real Madrid 0-1 Barcelona, March 2

A quirk of the calendar ensured that Spain’s greatest rivals would do battle twice in four days, once in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final and then again in the league.

After knocking Madrid out of the Cup, Barca effectively eliminated them as challengers in La Liga too, Ivan Rakitic’s delightful chip widening the gap to 12 points.

Santiago Solari lasted only 10 more days as Madrid coach while the Catalans had overcome one of the larger hurdles in their run-in. A six-game winning run put Barca in sight of the title.

Another big win over the arch-rivals.

Another big win over the arch-rivals.

Last hopes dashed – Villarreal 4-4 Barcelona, April 2

Some believed, optimistically, the title race could have life after Barcelona dropped two points away to Villarreal, allowing Atletico the chance to reduce the deficit to five if they could win at the Camp Nou four days later.

But the feeling was not one of disappointment. Instead, Messi and Suarez had scored in the 91st and 93rd minutes at the Estadio de la Ceramica to complete a dramatic comeback, making the draw feel like a victory and sending Barca into their top-of-the-table clash with a spring in their step.

Messi scores late again.

Messi scores late again.

Only a matter of time – Barcelona 2-0 Atletico Madrid, April 6

Diego Simeone said his Atletico side had to win to have any hope but instead they were dealt a knock-out blow as Diego Costa was sent off early before Suarez and Messi, again, scored late.

Costa’s dissent to referee Gil Manzano cost him an eight-match ban and his team dear, as Atleti were reduced to an hour of defending when they needed to attack. Victory sent Barca 11 points clear with seven games left, deeming their 26th La Liga triumph only a matter of time.

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Valverde proving his doubters wrong as Barcelona show they are Spain's best yet again

Tom Allnutt 28/04/2019
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Valverde is quietly silencing his critics.

Barcelona may yet prove they are the best team in Europe but they are indisputably the best in Spain after they wrapped up their fourth La Liga title in five years on Saturday.

Barca are now nine points clear of Atletico Madrid with three games left to play, while Real Madrid look set to finish a second consecutive season trailing the champions by double figures in terms of points.

The failings of Real, who now own the pitiful record of winning the league only once in seven years, are laid bare by the table but a smaller margin flatters Atletico too, masking what has, in truth, been a procession for the best part of four months.

“Our first goal is consistency, being the best every day,” Ernesto Valverde said in September.

At the start of January, Barca’s advantage was five points, February six, March seven and April eight. Some then hoped there could be a race when they drew 4-4 at Villarreal but a few days later they had beaten Atletico and that was that.

The stuttering form of those beneath them has certainly helped. Even if Barcelona had collapsed, Real were too far behind to capitalise while Atletico, fragile away from home, have never looked capable of the winning run required.

“For us next year, the league must be our number one priority,” Real coach Zinedine Zidane said on Wednesday.

But the faults of the Madrid pair belong to them not Barca, who have now been crowned kings of Spain eight times in 11 years, a period of dominance that was started by the historic treble-team of Pep Guardiola, consolidated under Luis Enrique and now elongated by Valverde.

“What we have done over the last years will go down in history,” said Sergio Busquets.

VALVERDE IGNORING DOUBTERS

Valverde may never convince those who take his pragmatism to be a sign of mediocrity and his veering from the iconic style of Guardiola as contrary to the ideals of Barcelona.

Winning the Champions League would surely appease the doubters, particularly if it amounted to Valverde’s own treble, with a Copa del Rey final against Valencia to come next month in Seville.

“We have to close out the title as soon as possible, without letting go,” Lionel Messi said. “Then we can think about Liverpool and the semi-finals.”

But the reputation of this Barcelona team, and their coach, is unfairly shaped by what has gone before, not least because most of those players have gone too. Messi, Busquets and Gerard Pique were the only ones present both in 2009 and 2019.

A Champions League title could shut up Valverde's critics for good.

A Champions League title could shut up Valverde’s critics for good.

Instead, Valverde adapted, by retaining some of the old, attacking verve while adding athleticism, shape and defensive discipline. When he arrived, two Super Cup defeats to Madrid prompted Pique to admit Barca felt inferior. Not now.

Madrid, thrashed 5-1, Huesca, hammered 8-2, Sevilla, twice beaten 4-2, Espanyol, Levante and Real Betis, each sent packing 4-0, 5-0 and 4-1 respectively, are all testament to this Barcelona’s exhilarating streak.

Messi’s 34 goals are too. If he can find four more in the three games left, it will be his best La Liga return since his 43 in 2015. His partner, Luis Suarez, has 21 and together, they have scored more than every team in the division except Real Madrid and Sevilla.

STRONG SUPPORTING CAST

But it was far from a two-man show. Many times, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen came to the rescue while Jordi Alba has scored and assisted more goals than any other defender in the league.

Pique has been immense in recent months and alongside him Clement Lenglet has made light of an injury-spoiled year for Samuel Umtiti.

Arthur Melo looks a future star in midfield while Ousmane Dembele’s early problems with fitness and indiscipline have given way to the scintillating talent that convinced Barca he was worth 105 million euros two years ago.

There have been concerns too. Defensively, Barcelona were suspect until Christmas and Busquets, who turns 31 in July, has too often been exposed in midfield. Both issues could yet resurface against Liverpool next week.

Pique has been immense in recent months.

Pique has been immense in recent months.

Philippe Coutinho left Anfield to join the elite but is yet to find his place. The January signings of Jeison Murillo and, in particular, Kevin-Prince Boateng were bizarre.

But none of those blips derailed the dominance of Barca. Instead, Real Madrid were persuaded to sack their coach, twice, while Atletico kept theirs but now face an exodus of players in the summer.

For both, uncertainty is the result of inferiority. Neither could argue that in 2018/19, Barcelona were not, by a distance, better than the rest.

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Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde - We're not going to apologise for having Messi

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Messi led Barca to another La Liga title on Saturday.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde refused to apologise for having to rely so heavily on Lionel Messi to solve their problems after the Argentinian scored the goal which secured an eighth title in 11 years.

Messi, rested for the first half against Levante ahead of next week’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool, came off the bench to score his 34th league goal of the season in the 1-0 victory.

Prior to his arrival Barca had laboured to impose themselves on a side just three points above the relegation zone, with former Reds midfielder Philippe Coutinho failing with three good chances.

“Messi always takes us out of many problems, it’s clear,” Valverde said in a press conference.

“We’re not going to apologise for having Messi, it’s a good thing he’s with us.

“If there has to be a protagonist and a name above the rest it is his, this is known to everyone.

“He was clear that he had to play. We have a game on Wednesday and we have to be active.

Messi proved to be the difference-maker once again.

Messi proved to be the difference-maker once again.

“I knew he was going to play at least from half-time; he made the goal in the end – he always makes goals everywhere.”

Valverde admits his side struggled with anxiety as they sought to win the title in front of their home fans for the first time since 2010.

“We had the tension of scoring in the first half,” he added.

“We had chances to do it and in the second half we did not score the second and they put us under pressure.”

Valverde wanted to have the league wrapped up as a boost heading into their home game against Liverpool.

“It is better to go into the game having won the league,” said the Barca coach.

“We are very confident and it is a good boost for Wednesday. We know how difficult it is going to be because Liverpool is having a great season and is a great team.”

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