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Luis Suarez epitomises what's right at Barcelona in title-winning campaign

This one was for Johan Cruyff. On the day his life was celebrated at the Camp Nou, after a brutally untimely and unfairly early death, the occasion was too much for Barcelona's players.

The resistance of rivals Real Madrid, the same team that chased the Catalans right down to the last few minutes of La Liga, the exhaustion of the FIFA virus and the emotion of the moment made April's Clasico a moment to celebrate the impact of a man Cruyff wanted to sign for Barcelona but couldn't: Zinedine Zidane.

The Zidane effect galvanised Los Blancos. Anyone with an appreciation for combative elegance will hope that effect doesn't just continue but blossoms.

But compare that to the Cruyff effect. As Gerard Pique went off the Nuevo Los Carmenes pitch having helped steer his club through to the title, the Barcelona centre-back said: "We've won six out of the last eight titles, I think that's incredible".

And it is. Particularly in context of how Barcelona, prior to Cruyff's arrival as manager in 1988, didn't really make a habit of being Spanish Champions. They were title winners twice between 1960 and 1991, but after Cruyff took over, Barca have won 14 league crowns.

So, there's a natural fit that in the year of his death, having flopped the audition to honour him properly last month, Barcelona should have the class, the muscle, the determination and the sheer champion's mentality to ensure that they weren't humiliated on the last day.

And there is a further link. You can't ascribe a trophy that Andres Iniesta called "the big title" to one person alone. That would be ludicrous. But if there has to be an emblem of this Liga victory, it is of course Luis Suarez.

He's scored more times for Barcelona in slightly more than a season and a half than he did in three-and-a-half years at Liverpool. Now he's won the Spanish Pichichi and the European Golden Boot. Now he's the guy who saw them through thick and thin, either with great goals or scrappy goals or the odd penalty or a flurry of assists -- the most of any player in La Liga and the most of his career.

Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez scored big goals throughout the season, providing the impetus for Barcelona to be crowned kings of La Liga.

The link, of course, is Ajax.

Part of Barcelona's problems this year in not winning the title more handsomely is that this was the season in which FIFA's punishment for rule breaches regarding signing juvenile players came home to roost. Had it not been for Barcelona's inability to restock as they'd have wished, either last summer or in the winter market, then it's not only feasible, but I'd argue likely, that this group would have retained the Champions League and become the first in history to win the double treble.

Punishments are there to warn and dissuade -- and to punish. So perhaps there's little for the Camp Nou club to complain about. They were guilty of the offences, it's for others to say whether the punishment fit the crime.

But they just ran out of juice a little bit, and their roll-of-the-dice signings of Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan haven't paid significant dividends. At least not yet.

For one reason or another -- daily work, tactical instructions, how quickly the ball must be moved, the player hierarchy, positional sense, timekeeping plus a host of other little details -- the two men haven't hit the ground running after sacrificing a handful of months in dry dock. Signed for Barcelona in the summer, but unable to play until January.

Suarez, remember, was different. When he returned to playing for Barcelona after his long ban, he had to find match sharpness and had to shed a kilo or so. But with even less time in training than Vidal and Turan benefitted from, Suarez became utterly vital to the team last season and an absolute key component in their treble.

So this season's improvement -- better fitness, better goal totals, more assists, more of an ability to step up on days when Lionel Messi or Neymar were either absent or off form -- matches how each of his transfers have seen him move up in terms of the size of club and the pressure he faced, as well as his ability to react to those steps up with improvements in his game.

While his move to Barcelona should have been his most testing, he's been superb partly because of what he learned in the club that Cruyff made great: Ajax. Suarez's understanding of technique, position, tactics, work rate, teamwork -- all of it was honed in the Amsterdam school of football. That's helped him not only understand but dominate the play at Barcelona.

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And there's still more about the Uruguayan that helps us map this season that has already yielded three major trophies for Barca with the Copa del Rey final to come on Sunday.

That ban he incurred for biting Giorgio Chiellini in the last World Cup meant that he went nearly two years without playing for Uruguay until being restored to the squad in March. Painful though that was for him, the benefits were also gigantic. A little break, mentally and physically, every few months with no extra injury pressures, fewer jet-lag-inducing transatlantic flights and some alone time with manager Luis Enrique -- they're all tiny windows of opportunity that he's used to remain unbelievable effective.

When did Barcelona's mini-stumble begin to allow Atletico Madrid and Real into the fight? To allow this title race to suddenly become so tense? Immediately after Suarez's first competitive matches in South America during a FIFA break since the summer of 2014.

What did it cost him? Having scored 12 goals in his previous 11 matches, he missed an open goal against Madrid in that Clasico and then failed to score against them, Real Sociedad, Valencia or Atletico in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg.

If you say there's no correlation between the reintroduction of tough, long-distance travel, the pressures of international football and Suarez's sudden loss of goal-scoring form then, on a good day, I might humour you. But I'll know you're talking nonsense.

As soon as he'd regained freshness and sharpness? Fourteen goals in five matches and the title in the bag.

He's playing in a Barcelona side that needs new blood, new eagerness and new hunger. The equivalent of what happened in the summer of 2008, with the arrival of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Seydou Keita, plus the promotion of Sergio Bouquets and Pedro. Or the summer of 2014, when Claudio Bravo, Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha and Jeremy Mathieu made such a vast impact.

A title remains for Barcelona, if they can win in the Copa final on Sunday. A haul of European Supercup, Club World Cup, Spanish Primera champions and Copa del Rey kings would be impressive. But a measure of this group's greatness is that they'll always believe they should have won the double treble.

Zinedine Zidane
After arriving midway through the year, manager Zinedine Zidane salvaged Real Madrid's season and took them within a point of the Liga title.

Madrid's season, meanwhile, can be marked by a handful of very straightforward events. The first was the appointment of Rafa Benitez. A talented coach, appointed at the club he loves, and a hard worker. He was never the right appointment, partly because Madrid was wrong for him, not only vice-versa.

Perhaps if that appointment hadn't been forced upon a squad that wanted Carlo Ancelotti to be retained, then Los Blancos might have been champions. Having missed out on the title by the breadth of one decent result, it underlines that several instances of dropped points -- drawing 0-0 with Sporting Gijon or Malaga, losing after having led at Sevilla, drawing after having led at Atletico -- could have and should have been wins that would have given Madrid the title by a point.

It's a judgement on Madrid's ethos and benign dictatorship that Benitez felt forced (or perhaps felt safer in his job) to field the defensively inept Danilo and bench the hard-nosed Casemiro. Both decisions played a huge part in November's 4-0 Clasico thrashing that helped guide the title to Barcelona.

Madrid's great gain from this season is the knowledge that while Zidane still has much to prove in terms of strategy and tactics, this being so early in his senior management career, there is a guy who still carries huge impact on his players and who has put his club in a position to salvage something from the wreckage in a fortnight's time at the San Siro.

Another vital key for Madrid to take from their close-but-no-cigar season is that they must find a way to keep their three-jewelled crown, the so-called BBC, fitter more often. Bale, prolific in the last third of the season, started 21 league matches. Benzema, just as Benitez demanded, has produced the best league scoring form of his life. But he started just 26 times in La Liga.

And finally for the runners-up, when your keeper, Keylor Navas, is your player of the season (which he most certainly is, no matter Ronaldo's fabulous scoring performance) then there's a problem. It's a problem of controlling possession, a problem of how well the midfield shields the defence, a problem of the age and injury records of the central defenders and a problem of Danilo's defensive ineptitude.

So, there is fun to come in Milan in a fortnight, but lots of work to do to turn a valiant failure into success next season.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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