The weekend after Barcelona's annihilation of Manchester United in the Champions League final of 2011, I wrote a piece for this site which referred to the reaction of the Madrid-based football press the morning after the final. Marca's headline, I wrote, was entitled 'Mourinho walks his dog', and unfortunately, some folks took it seriously. Well, maybe he did walk his dog, but you get the point.
This year, it's been the chronicle of a league title foretold, and after Saturday night's 1-1 draw in Espanyol's Cornella-El Prat stadium between the hosts and a decaffeinated Real Madrid, Barcelona took the title without having to kick a ball in anger. Nevertheless, Sunday morning's headline in the famous tabloid read 'Bring on the 9th!', in reference to the final of the basketball Euroliga to be played in London on the Sunday night between Real Madrid and Olympiakos, which represented Madrid's shot at winning it for the ninth time in their history. To the right, in rather smaller letters, was the phrase 'Pasillo al campeon' which referred to the applause that the Atlético Madrid players would render to the football champions as they emerged from the tunnel in the Calderon on Sunday evening.
This was duly done, and Barcelona underlined their status by beating Atlético 2-1, despite having gone down to ten men when Leo Messi was injured and all the substitutes had been sent on. This was no mean feat, at a ground where the hosts have excelled this season and where Barcelona have never had it all their own way. Meanwhile, over in London, Real Madrid lost, failing to win the trophy they last held aloft 18 years ago. A symbolic evening? Decide for yourselves.
Atlético, of course, may have had other things on their minds, such as the King's Cup final in the Bernabéu this coming Friday, but double that sentiment for Real Madrid, who left a sizeable chunk of their first-team regulars on the bench (or in the stands) for their game too. It was thus rather amusing to see Barcelona fans in the early hours, dancing in the streets, letting off firecrackers and desperately trying to dedicate some words of thanks to their hated neighbours, Espanyol, for handing them the title. One fan, draped in the colours, slurred the awkward phrase 'Pues si, me cuesta decirlo. Pero si, gracias!' (Well yeah, I find it hard to say this but, yes, thanks!).
Barcelona's season has been double-edged, and the celebrations that will take place at home to Valladolid next Sunday will be tinged by that inevitable anti-climax that results from having peaked so early. The Catalans' opening salvo, arriving at the half-way stage with 18 games won and a single draw (against Real Madrid) not only set a league record but left all competitors gasping in their wake. It was a brutal reaction to the previous season's dethroning by their rivals, and a gesture that underlined their determination to not allow the departure of Pep Guardiola to rock the boat. Tito Vilanova took over the reins seamlessly, as planned, and records continued to tumble. But his illness and subsequent departure to New York for treatment took their inevitable toll, and the team never quite re-established its rhythm.
Everything is relative, of course, and it was impossible to sustain such a wonderful start, but the disappointments in the King's Cup and the Champions League have, at the very least, demonstrated to the club's rectors that the process of rebuilding will require the departure of some and the purchase of others. La Masia is strong, but not so strong as to blood the new generation just yet. And if Neymar is really on his way to the Camp Nou, will he fit into the system or seek to re-define it? He also comes at a considerable price, which rather suggests that his purchasers would like to know his intentions beforehand. The same goes for the Bernabéu, to which he is still linked, despite the rumours of having signed a pre-nuptial agreement with Barcelona.
There'll be time to talk of these things, and cabbages and kings, when the season ends for good, but in the meantime there are developments on other fronts. Malaga's almost certain exclusion from European competition next season and the continued instability of the club's regime have made their manager, Manuel Pellegrini, a sought-after target. Manchester City's limp and surprising capitulation to relegation-threatened Wigan in the English FA Cup Final on Saturday has also played a part in the story, since Roberto Mancini's stock will have plummeted to hitherto unknown depths. Pellegrini would be a good choice, and his English is better than Mancini's anyway. The quietly-spoken master of man-management has had a turbulent ride (through no fault of his own) since leaving the relatively calm waters of Villarreal, and will certainly find that Man City's expectations will demand immediate results, but it's hard to see him turning down the challenge.
Meanwhile, over in Wigan, Roberto Martinez, Spain's forgotten man, finds that his country's press are beginning to take notice at last. Martinez is a lovely chap, speaks better English than most of his (English) players, and may well be on the verge of becoming the first manager in English league history to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season. Were that to happen, his loyal president would ask him to stay, but suitors may emerge from the shadows. Whether Martinez would really want to return to Spain to work, after having been in England since 1995, is another question. Valencia, Malaga, or Athletic? Take your choice. I think I'd stay at Wigan, or nip up the road to Everton.
Talking of Athletic, their 2-1 win at home to Mallorca sealed another season in the top flight (they've never been relegated) and more or less condemned their opponents to the drop. Irony seems to be this week's theme, since the winner was scored by Fernando Llorente, target of the lynch-mob for the entire season due to his desire for pastures new, and once again booed during the match, until he scored the sacred goal. Llorente has taken the abuse this season with stoical dignity or insensitive arrogance, depending on your view of him. I tend towards the former interpretation, but there were some Athletic fans caught on camera on Saturday in a report by Spain's Cuatro channel who will regret their actions, if they saw the report as they sat on their sofas the next day. The abuse being meted out to Llorente from a certain section of the crowd was tantamount to a denial of human rights. It's a shame that Athletic have allowed this nonsense to continue, especially considering that their stubborn retention of the player against his will was the spark that lit the fire of this public insult-fest. Athletic are a special club, but not so special as to assume that someone should want to stay rocking in their cradle for ever. Javi Martinez has proved that there is life after Athletic. Llorente (and possibly Marcelo Bielsa) must be praying now for June 1.
Valencia's season has perked up considerably, and their 4-0 win at stuttering Rayo at midday on Sunday propelled them up to fourth place, with Real Sociedad waiting to play Granada on Monday night, at the unsociable hour of 10pm. Forgive the rant, but what is the point of the Monday fixture? School kids cannot, or should not, attend, and for others it's a very late night, with work the next day. Does anyone actually watch these games on the TV anyway? The Friday night game has some spice attached to it - with folks relaxing and out in the bars, but the Monday game just seems to be a dump fixture that pays zero respect to the paying customer. On top of that, Real Sociedad were given the same slot last week at Getafe, where they lost 2-1 in front of some 6,000 spectators in the Coliseo. Had they played at a normal time on the weekend, almost 3,000 fans would have travelled to Madrid to see the game. It would have lent the game some atmosphere, and - small detail this - boosted Sociedad's chances of getting something from the fixture. This was a side in the top four. It is inconceivable that such treatment would be meted out to the other three occupants of the Champions League places. And next week, guess what time Real Sociedad play in Seville? You guessed it - 10pm again, but at least it's on the Saturday. Would someone prefer them not to take that Champions League slot? Call me paranoid, but it makes you wonder.
Down in Segunda (Division Two), Elche blew their big day and drew at home to Barcelona 'B' (1-1), but are virtually assured of promotion now. They will probably be champions too, since they still lead second-placed Girona by ten points, with four games left to play. Elche were last in the top flight in 1989, and their enormous ground took in 33,000 spectators to see Saturday's game, in contrast to the 9,000 who turned up to see Girona. They have never been in the top flight, and interesting though their presence would be, they will have to do better than to lose 4-2 at home to Xerez, a side already relegated who had not won a game since November.
Girona were muttering about 'suitcases', and will now be looking nervously over their shoulders at Villarreal who are looking to bounce back first time after a rocky start. Almeria and Alcorcon are on the same points as Villarreal, however, and the ending to this season in the 'silver' league looks like being a rather more intense affair than in the golden one. Nevertheless, as José Mourinho quietly asserted in the post-Espanyol press conference (before he went off to walk his dog), congratulations to Barcelona. There were plenty of scribes who saw last season as the end of their cycle. It's always nice to prove people wrong. For now anyway.