MADRID - Barcelona have blazed a path to their 19th Primera Liga title with a brand of irresistible, attacking football which none of their rivals came close to matching. Real Madrid made a brave attempt to chase them down, in their own pursuit of a third successive league crown, but were cruelly exposed in a 6-2 battering at the Bernabeu two weeks ago that shattered their morale. Real fell 3-2 to Villarreal on Saturday, gifting the title to their arch-rivals who do not play at Real Mallorca until Sunday, but that should in no way undermine Barca's achievements. They have set a points record in a 20-team Primera Liga of 86 with three games left to play, and they are just four goals away from the benchmark of 107 set by Real Madrid in 1989/90. Former player Pep Guardiola, 38, has been the architect of their success after replacing Frank Rijkaard last year, making an immediate impact in his first season as a top-flight coach. Before the campaign started, he let the club sell Ronaldinho and Deco but wisely changed his mind and hung on to Samuel Eto'o, this season's top scorer in the league with 28 goals so far. A defeat and a draw to promoted Numancia and Racing Santander in their opening two matches raised some early doubts, but they never looked back once they hit the top in October. Guardiola tightened up their defensive organisation to the point where they conceded fewer goals than any other team. New arrivals such as Daniel Alves and Gerard Pique added some steel, while a fitter squad were better able to swarm over the opposition to quickly win back possession high up the pitch. MIDFIELD MAESTROS Once they had the ball, they mesmerised their rivals with midfield maestros Xavi and Andres Iniesta pulling the strings, just as they had for Luis Aragones's Spain at Euro 2008. Eto'o, Lionel Messi and a fully fit Thierry Henry were devastating up front. Those three players alone have scored 70 goals between them -- only Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have superseded that tally in the league. Barca beat Real Madrid 2-0 at home in December to open up a 12-point lead, but it is a credit to the coach of their arch-rivals Juande Ramos, whose league debut was in the Nou Camp, that the title was not wrapped up earlier. Ramos was drafted in when Bernd Schuster was sacked with the side stumbling towards the end of last year, and managed to make a fight of it against a background of institutional instability caused by the resignation of president Ramon Calderon in January. Real were ravaged by injuries which ruled Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mahamadou Diarra and Ruben de la Red out for the season, while Arjen Robben spent more time on the treatment table than in action. They were embarrassed by third tier Real Union in the King's Cup, and then soundly beaten by Liverpool to exit the Champions League at the first knockout round stage once again. But without ever really impressing they strung together a remarkable run of 17 league victories from 18 matches to cut the gap back to four points, before their charge was abruptly halted in its tracks at the Bernabeu. Barca's fight for honours on three fronts saw them lift the King's Cup after a 4-1 final victory over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday and book a place in the Champions League final against Manchester United on May 27. They almost inevitably dropped points, but they were merciless against their direct rivals. In six meetings against the three sides likely to join them in the Champions League next season, Real, Sevilla and Valencia, they have won five and drawn one, scoring 21 times and conceding just 4. Valencia are 27 points adrift in fourth place. Johan Cruyff's Barcelona won four consecutive league titles between 1991 and 1994 with Guardiola as the midfield general. Their Primera Liga rivals need to buck up their ideas if he is not to inspire a repeat performance.
17 May 2009
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