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The Toe Poke

Barca reclaim La Liga crown

There was widespread shock in Barcelona - and further afield - the day Tito Vilanova was announced as successor to his departing friend and former boss Josep Guardiola just over 12 months ago.

Vilanova - then known mostly outside Catalonia as the coach who Jose Mourinho poked in the eye, or maybe Pep's right-hand man who had beaten cancer - was put forward as the ideal person to carry the project forward, to ensure continuity even as Guardiola left.

That seemed to make sense on the day, but after the initial shock of seeing Guardiola's exit confirmed had cleared, many wondered if Tito would be up to the task. Mourinho's Madrid had just swept aside Pep's team, reclaiming the Primera Division title in record-breaking style. They were the first La Liga side to reach 100 points, and also scored a record 121 league goals. The Special One had also signed a contract extension tying him - in theory - to the Bernabeu until June 2016.

Talk of a power-swing back towards the Spanish centre intensified when Madrid took August's Spanish Supercopa, and especially when €18 million former Arsenal midfielder Alex Song was Barca's biggest signing during the summer transfer window. Vilanova's tactical nous was unquestioned, but there were widespread doubts about whether he had the necessary motivational and leadership skills to re-energise the blaugrana side.

The doubts were diminished by Barca's start to the La Liga season - 16 wins and one draw from their first 17 games at the winter break. By Christmas they had more points (49) and had scored more goals (57) than at the same stage of any season under Guardiola. Meanwhile Mourinho's side had already dropped more points than in the whole of the previous season, and were 13 adrift down in third spot.

Such outstanding form could not be maintained all season. Into the new year injuries, a heavy fixture list including Copa del Rey and European games, and defensive issues which had been there all season began to take their toll. January 19 brought a first domestic defeat of the season - 3-2 at Real Sociedad, and the next few weeks also saw a draw at Valencia and a loss at the Bernabeu.

More important were serious concerns over the health of Vilanova. The 43-year-old underwent an operation to remove another cancerous tumour in December, and then travelled to New York in early January for two months of further treatment. Assistant Jordi Roura - a nice guy and honest talker, but not a stirring leader - stepped up to media duties. Meanwhile, Vilanova watched games and training sessions over the internet, and made tactical and substitution decisions via Skype calls and WhatsApp messages.

The set-up was far from ideal, and Barca's performances did suffer, but Madrid's ongoing internal strife and Atletico's inevitable blip helped maintain their lead in the table. On Vilanova's return to Catalonia in late March the gap to now second placed Madrid was still 13 points, and the title race was already over.

Even still it has not been a vintage season for many Barca players. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes has announced he is leaving. Just nine clean sheets from 34 La Liga games betrays a defence beset by fitness problems and lack of form. In midfield Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets have played while injured, Cesc Fabregas has often seemed unsure what he is supposed to be doing, and Thiago Alcantara not really pushed on. Up front Alexis Sanchez has been whistled at the Camp Nou and David Villa looked over the hill.

Others have stepped up - with utility man Adriano Correia proving invaluable and young winger Christian Tello underlining his potential. But of the team's core, only Andres Iniesta can really be said to have consistently shown his best form throughout the season.

Well that is, apart from Leo Messi. Even as a thigh injury disrupted his contribution to their European campaign, the Argentine sprang half-fit from the bench to turn around games against Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis and drive his team home in La Liga over recent weeks. Scoring in 19 consecutive league games - against every other team in the division - was a phenomenal achievement. With 46 goals already, and four games remaining, he looks set to top last season's La Liga record of 50.

With the title secured and pressure off, 12 points from their last four games will now see Barca match Madrid's total of 100 from last season, while the 121 goals mark also looks in danger. Matching those records will not take away the memory of the painful 7-0 aggregate Champions League exit to Bayern, but it would help remind everyone who have been Spain's best side this season. Vilanova's Barca have not always played to their full potential but - the 1-2 defeat in Madrid aside - they have generally shown the character of champions. This often meant coming back from conceding early goals to win, usually with Messi to the fore.

This counts because for many onlookers the title was sewn up so early that it has already been celebrated and moved on from by the time of the Bayern defeat. Vilanova and Iniesta have felt the need to insist that winning La Liga is always the primary objective each season, European success is then a nice added extra. Barca figures, including sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and Fabregas, have also talked about "certain people" trying to devalue their domestic achievement, given Cristiano Ronado's sadness, Madrid giving up so early and Mourinho's imminent departure.

Gerard Pique even suggested Barca's own fans having short memories and not appreciating the value of what is now a fourth La Liga trophies in five seasons for the team that Pep [and Tito] built. The defender has a point. The balance may have tilted towards Germany in Europe, but even with their coach absent for long spells, and many players below their best, Messi's brilliance means Vilanova's Barca have wrested control of La Liga back from Mourinho's Madrid.


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