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Barca’s 22nd title feels like anti-climax

MESSI-BETISMADRID, Spain, May 12- Barcelona’s fourth La Liga title in five seasons, and their 22nd in all, finally arrived on Saturday with somewhat of an anti-climax.

The result that sealed the title did come in Barcelona, but thanks to city neighbours Espanyol as their 1-1 draw with Real Madrid left Los Blancos seven points adrift of Barca with just two games to play.

However, given they had the league practically sewn up thanks to an 18-point lead over Real by the turn of the year, domestic success has somewhat been lost amongst the Champions League humiliation handed down by Bayern Munich.

The Catalans’ 7-0 semi-final aggregate defeat — the worst European defeat in their history — laid bare some of the cracks that they had just managed to paper over on the domestic scene thanks to a record-breaking first-half of the campaign and the sensational goal-scoring feats of Lionel Messi through a difficult spell in 2013.

In every sense it has been a tumultuous season for Barca.

Initial fears about manager Tito Vilanova’s ability to fill the shoes of friend and former boss Pep Guardiola were quickly eased by the best ever first-half to the season Spain has ever witnessed.

A 2-2 draw at home to Real Madrid was the only blemish from an otherwise perfect return of 55 from a possible 57 points.

However, the club was rocked in December by the news that Vilanova would need surgery and chemotherapy after the reappearance of a tumour on a saliva gland.

With more important matters to deal with, Vilanova headed to New York to undergo treatment, whilst back in the Catalan capital, Barca began to feel the strain of not having a coach and a leader.

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Three defeats in four games in February to AC Milan in the Champions League and Real Madrid in both domestic league and cup were the first signs of a squad beginning to be worn down by injuries and fatigue after such a relentless schedule for so many seasons.

A Messi-inspired display managed to pull the Milan tie around and morale was high when, within four days of one another, Vilanova returned to the touchline and Eric Abidal made his long-awaited return to playing after over a year out due to his need for a liver transplant.

However, in the following rounds in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern, Barca’s weariness and reliance on a half-fit Messi was thoroughly exposed.

In domestic action, they have managed to continue accumulating enough points to keep the gap a healthy one thanks again to Messi’s stunning record of having scored in every league game he has been involved in since early November.

Given the European disappointment there has been a campaign by Barca to highlight how stunning in statistical terms their league season has been and a reaction to what some inside the club have seen as an undermining of their achievement.

Indeed should they win their remaining four games, Barca would match Madrid’s league record haul of 100 points from last season.

Cesc Fabregas angrily complained that after scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Levante on April 20 that it was important to win the league “even if some people are trying to make it look like it doesn’t matter”.

Sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta meanwhile sarcastically described La Liga last week as “the most important competition until a few months ago and now it seems like a clandestine competition on the weekends.”

However, in this sense they have simply been victims of their own success. Barca have successfully competed on all fronts for the past five seasons, the trick now is to not follow their predecessors as the greatest Barca team in history to fall apart.

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Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” of the early nineties also won four titles and a European Cup, but after a 4-0 defeat to Milan in the 1994 European Cup final, Barca didn’t win another title for four years and finished the following season in fourth place.

As soon as the ice has melted on the champagne bottles that have been chilling for a while in the Catalan capital, there is some serious planning to be done to ensure they are once again celebrating come this time next year.

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