The audio version of this article can be heard as part of the upcoming Onside Inzaghi podcast.
The phrase ‘Hay Liga’, literally translating as ‘there is league’, is used to denote the existence of a La Liga title race. With Barcelona’s recent dominance however the phrase has become increasingly irrelevant and after Ernesto Valverde’s charges 2-0 triumph over closest challengers Atletico Madrid on Saturday night, ‘hay liga’ was again retired for another season.
Maybe there never truly ‘was league’. Despite the fact that an Atletico win would’ve closed the gap at the top to just 5 points with 7 games to play, another title for Valverde’s side has rarely been in doubt. Even during the first half of the campaign when, perhaps as a result of a ‘World Cup hangover’, results across the league became increasingly baffling, Barcelona continued to be the dominant force. Since the third round of games they’ve only ended a weekend off the top twice despite a run of 4 matches without a win at the end of September.
Following the dramatic 4-3 home loss to Quique Setien’s Real Betis on November 11th, Barcelona have won 15, drawn 4 and lost none of their subsequent La Liga outings. In that same period Real Madrid have lost 5 times - at Eibar and Valencia and at home to Real Sociedad and Girona as well as in the Classico, while Atletico suffered 4 defeats. Meanwhile Barca’s tally of 81 league goals is 36 better than Atletico’s and 25 superior to Real Madrid’s, and with Valencia to come in the Copa del Rey final, a treble is very much on.
Bizarrely there remain decienting voices in Spain. There are those who oddly reacted with confusion or even anger via social media at Ernesto Valverde’s contract extension in February and those in the press who claim this incarnation of Barcelona don’t truly convince. Perhaps simply because they’re not the omnipotent force of Pep Guardiola's Barca team - arguably the greatest team of all time. Nevertheless Barcelona have been clearly superior, domestically at least, for sometime.
A double points margin of victory is likely this season while an unbeaten campaign was close last term before a chaotic 5-4 loss to Levante ended hopes in week 37 of 38. With the league all but won, Mundo Deportivo claiming: ‘only the date is missing’, a 4th La Liga title in 5 seasons in close - a 10th in 15 years. Barcelona are clearly the best team in Spain both this season and this decade. Such is their dominance that Luis Suarez was even questioned on the value of the title having beaten Atleti. "It is very difficult to win the League” said Suarez “We have to give it a lot of value, today we took a big step forward."
However, things are made easier when you have probably the best player of all time. It wouldn’t be outlandish to say that the dominant force in Spanish football in recent seasons has been Lionel Messi rather than FC Barcelona. 18/19 has been no different. Ludicrous hat tricks away at Sevilla and Betis have contributed the usual ratio of 45 goals in 47 games across all competitions before the Champions League tie with Manchester United. In the process of beating of Atletico on Saturday, Messi now has the most La Liga wins in history. His tally of 345 victories surpassed Iker Casillas’ total, the Argentine doing so in 447 league games, 63 less than Casillas.
Although Barca remained undefeated through a 5 game spell in the Autumn when Messi was injured - including beating an ailing Real Madrid 5-1 to end Julen Lopetegui’s disastrous spell in charge, Messi’s influence remains overarching. Something perhaps best illustrated by the difference he has made of the bench. With the score at 1-1 as Leganes visited the Nou Camp in January, introduced on the hour the rebound from a Messi shot was tapped home by Suarez before Messi sealed the win late on. 4-2 behind against Villarreal, Messi came off the bench to aid a injury time fight back, scoring a superb free kick before his corner lead to Suarez's winner - although admittedly Messi entered the fray at 2-2.
Messi, again ably assisted by Suarez, proved pivotal against Atletico. A Messi pass put Jordi Alba in early on to hit the post before Suarez combined with Philippe Coutinho to force a superb save from Jan Oblak. The game however would hinge on Diego Costa’s sending off and what he did or didn’t say about referee Senor Gil Manzano’s mother. Costa insists he was referencing his own mother, rather than insulting Gil Manzano’s.
In Spain the debate has raged over which mother Costa spoke of, the difference between an insult and an exclamation of frustration. The referee stated in his report, as detailed by Mundo Deportivo, that he felt clearly it was his mother being insulted while adding: "Once expelled, still in the field of play, (Costa) grabbed me on two occasions by the arm in order to prevent me from showing warnings to his partners 24 (Gimenez) and 2 (Godin), respectively."
Mundo Deportivo went as far to as to ask, as many Spanish outlets have, ‘who should be believed?’ Although Costa is seen insisting to Gil Manzano in the aftermath that it was his own mother he was referencing, at worst the referee misheard Costa rather than it being an issue of integrity. Despite the paper pointing out a handful of decisions made Gil Manzano over the past few years that have benefited Barca against Atletico, Gil Manzano was also the referee that only booked then Atletico Madrid forward Arda Turan for throwing his boot at an assistant referee as Barcelona visited the Vicente Calderon for January 2015 Copa del Rey tie.
Nevertheless Atletico’s feeling of injustice was clear. Atleti midfielder Koke complained that: "Whenever we come to the Camp Nou, something [like this] happens," while Marca listed seven instances of decisions going against the Madrid club and Diego Simeone referenced the harsh dismissal of Fernando Torres at the Nou Camp in 2016’s Champions League quarter final first leg - a tie which Atletico won. Simeone continued, insisting: "Many Barcelona players do the same and the other referees do not send them off... In 11 games we’ve received seven expulsions, we must be doing something wrong."
Following Costa’s dismissal, the goalkeeping heroics of Oblak who, dressed in all black drew parallels with Russian legend Lev Yashin, kept Barcelona at bay until the 85th minute when Suarez's bending effort from the edge of the area. Messi made it 2-0 a minute later to end the game and any semblance of a title race.
Despite their resulting 11 point lead Valverde remained cautious. "We have three very important points, we are closer to the title, but the work has to be finished.” Although he did concede that “today was a fundamental match.” Suarez meanwhile went a little further explaining, "We have not taken one step towards the league, but two." Spain’s media were less reserved however. ‘Another League in the pocket” said Marca, who’s front page was typically still dominated by Real Madrid’s victory over Eibar. “Suarez and Messi lower the curtain” said As, “Now for the Champions League” said Sport. The Messi-Suarez partnership, drew particular praise from Mundo Deportivo who’s website referred to the pair as ‘the partnership of dreams’ and ‘geniuses’.
Marca meanwhile asked the question: ‘What happens when Suarez leaves?’ While Messi understandably takes much of the attention, Suarez - 33 in January - would also be difficult to replace. Although he can flitter in and out of form both during a single game and more generally, his tenacity, physicality, and street-fighter knack for manufacturing all types goals is virtually unique at this level. His 28 strikes in all competitions games have been important as well; the injury time leveller at Villarreal, a brace in the Copa del Rey win at the Bernabeu, a hat trick in the 5-1 classico triumph and two goals to beat Rayo Vallecano 3-2 in Messi’s absence a week later. While the Uruguayan still has time left, where Barcelona get what Luis Suarez provides from another source is a question without an answer for now.
As far as Atletico Madrid are concerned their season ends in something approaching failure, given the very high standards of the Simeone era, after a 2-0 Champions League lead over Juventus uncharastically meekly squandered, not competitive enough at the top of the league and knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the last 16 stage by Girona. Understandably, Koke remained pensive on his team’s season: "We are going to be realistic, we have had a difficult year with many injuries, new players who are adapting to the style of the team. We are competing well but after the elimination from the Champions League it seems that we are having a bad season, but it will help us grow. We have young players, players of a great level and we are second in LaLiga, ahead of Real Madrid, one of the best teams in the world.”
Simeone meanwhile pointed to the "Improvement of Rodrigo, of Thomas, of Giménez, who is having an extraordinary season,” the Argentine coach explained, “we are in a complex moment, we know that, but all these situations will make us strong, we have to empower those talented players that we have." Despite his biggest triumph coming in a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp to win the league title in 2014, Saturday’s defeat meant Simeone extended his run of never beating Barcelona in the league since arriving in 2011. 15 subsequent games have only seen 5 draws.
Keeping Antoine Griezmann will of course be key to changing that. Although again rumoured to be keen on joining Barcelona, having releasing a bizarre ‘documentary’ named the ‘the decision’ last summer featuring the Frenchman wistfully pondering whether to move clubs before deciding to stay with Atleti, the disparaging chants reported by Mundo Deportivo and whistles directed at the Atleti forward by Nou Camp support underlined how Barca fans feel about that idea.
For the Champions elect however, especially given the context of their abject exit at Roma last season - a defeat that defined their campaign, and perhaps still would have even if they had gone unbeaten in La Liga, the Champions League remains a priority for Valverde with perennial rivals Real Madrid being the dominant force in Europe - if not Spain - across in the last 5 seasons, winning 4 European cups.
Nevertheless, although Madrid may have Zinedine Zidane back in charge and be on the verge of a mammoth summer spending spree, domestically Barcelona’s (and Leo Messi’s) form as well as recent history suggests that “hay Liga!” is a long way from being exclaimed with gusto any time soon.
by Adam White