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30 stats for Messi's 30th birthday

Barcelona
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By ESPN Staff

Of suffering and success

The Tantric idea of suffering, or at least its explanation for the existence of suffering, is that negativity helps us to understand the positive. As Thomas More once said (although he wasn't into Buddhism), 'We cannot go to Heaven in feather beds. It is not the way'. Fair enough. Real Madrid and their long suffering supporters finally got to dunk themselves in the Cibeles fountain at the end of a spiritual pilgrimage lasting four long years - fasting in the wild, an eternity almost, after so many years of plenty.

But they may well appreciate it more than previous league titles, mainly because a few months ago it all seemed so improbable, Capello was on his way home and Barcelona seemed destined to continue their run of success, almost by default.

Now the future colour of La Liga looks a little different, and despite Barça's pyrrhic 1-5 win at relegated Nastic, their wretched season looks likely to ring in some future changes. Sevilla, most neutrals' hope for the title, blew it on the home run, as many had suspected they might, losing disappointingly in the final analysis to Villarreal and falling victim to their overstretched ambition in a season which saw them on for the treble until the final game.

Next week they play Getafe in the King's Cup Final, and one can only wish them well. In many ways they deserved the league title for the sheer enthusiasm of their play, and their relentless commitment to attacking football. If they can retain the core of the side, and add to it with the funds collected from this season, then they might be able to take it further. But first they have to ensure that their manager does not take a plane for Manchester, as it is still hotly rumoured that he'll take the job at Man City.

But back to the champions of Spain. The suffering continued until the 68th minute of the final game, when José Antonio Reyes, of all people, on for a limping Beckham, equalised the 15th minute goal from Varela that had stunned the prematurely celebrating Bernabéu into nervous silence.

Nine minutes from the end, Diarra back-headed in the second, and Barça's four goal lead in Tarragona became meaningless. Reyes sidefooted home the third to end an extraordinary last lap to the league campaign, in which three players who looked to be discarded from the second half of the season came up trumps in the end. In fact Diarra, whose header turned the match, had been playing so badly up to that point that the supporters were actively attempting to have him taken off. He had only got back from Mali the day before, and by all accounts he was unhappy to have been dragged back. How ironic it was that he should score the decisive goal.

Reyes, on loan from Arsenal, has been a huge disappointment this season, and would have been unlikely to appear had not Beckham's ankle finally felt the strain. At the point when Beckham went off, with Madrid still 0-1 down and looking rather lost, the applause from the Bernabéu seemed to wash over the Englishman's head, who ducked into the dug-out without so much as an acknowledgment of the reception. Even Tom Cruise, up in the stands with Posh, looked concerned from behind his shades.

But one minute later, things began to look up - and once Madrid had equalised, with Guti on for Emerson, things flowing rather better and they never looked back. Referee Muñiz Fernandez, he of the slicked-back hair, should really have sent off Reyes for a ridiculous foul on Ballesteros, but he didn't have the guts, given the scene around him. Mallorca will no doubt complain that he shouldn't have been on when he scored the third goal, but that is unlikely to be dwelt upon by Real Madrid's historians. The 30th title is in the bag, after a sudden and unexpected surge in form around February time, more or less coinciding with Beckham's return to the side. Mijatovic signed Capello 'to win titles'. Well that's what he's done, after a substantial period of suffering. No feather beds this year. But will the Italian stay?

Thereby hangs a question, but this week should see the issue resolved, as long as euphoria doesn't get in the way, and as long as Bernd Schuster doesn't begin to complain about the non-fulfilment of the alleged agreement he has already signed with President Calderón. He wasted no time in repeating to the press the day after that he was still interested in the job, and despite the Madrid media's ecstasy at the title, there are still enough voices of dissent with regard to the Italian's basic philosophy.

Calderón remains tight-lipped, but once the confetti has blown away, he might decide to end the marriage. Hard-core Madridistas are happy that Barça's grip on the league has been loosened, but they know that it was hardly done in style. Madrid won it, or Barça lost it? Thereby hangs the conundrum. Part of Madrid's problem has been their inability to plan long-term with any coherence, which was one of the reasons for the drought period.

Calderón never wanted Capello in the first place, and for all the plaudits he will receive this week, he still began the most vital game of the season with the hated double-pivot of Emerson and Diarra. Only when the crowd got Guti did Madrid begin to pick holes in Mallorca's defence. Then again, another problem for Madrid has been a lack of steadiness, a lack of continuity. As Beckham said - thanks to my managers - all six of them.

Then again, who will stay at Barça, and who will go? Now that Thierry Henry looks set to add his ego to the Camp Nou changing-rooms, it seems likely that some of ego-kilos will need to be sold off, most likely in the form of Samuel Eto'o. The club seem to have finally realised why Real Madrid didn't want him back two years ago. He may well win you things in the short-term, but long-term stability remains a chimera with his volatile presence around.

Ronaldinho? Most rumours see him set to add to Berlusconis' 'galactici' at AC Milan, athough he is unlikely to be joined now by Frank Rijkaard, given the success of Ancelloti this year. The interesting thing is that unlike last year, you get the feeling that the Barça faithful wouldn't be quite so sad to see the back of the Brazilian now, especially if it brings in the euros. The feeling seems to be that they've seen the best of him, and it might be worth cashing in now.

Elsewhere, Villarreal made the UEFA and fifth place after a storming post-Xmas recovery, and Zaragoza pinched the other spot from Atlético Madrid, but deservedly so. Down at the bottom, Real Sociedad returned to Division Two after forty consecutive years in the top flight, accompanied by Celta who return rather sooner they had planned. Athletic Bilbao escaped by the skin of their teeth, and remain the only side other than Real Madrid and Barça to have never been out of the top flight. Betis, who lost 0-5 at home last week and who were looking ripe for the drop, managed a dramatic final-day win at stuttering Santander, and can look forward to another year of derbies with their rather more illustrious neighbours.


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