Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona shook off a terrible start to beat all before them and land an historic treble.

By Sid Lowe in Madrid
Week three in La Liga and coach Pep Guardiola could have been forgiven for being worried. A debutant in the Barcelona dugout, alone but for the shadowy figures gathering behind him, knives at the ready, his status as a Barca legend, an icon of the Dream Team, had bought him the benefit of the doubt. But the critics were growing in number and his credit was running out fast.

Barcelona had suffered the worst start in their history. Beaten by Numancia – a side whose entire annual budget would not pay Leo Messi’s wages and whose winning goal was scored by the worst-paid player in the league – they were then held at home by Racing Santander.

They had scored just once – and even that was a penalty – and one newspaper printed a gigantic arrow pointing to a goal with the headline: “Lads, it’s over here!”

Fail to beat Sporting Gijon away and Barcelona could find themselves in the relegation zone. But they didn’t fail. Guardiola’s men thrashed Sporting 6-1 and then proceeded, one by one, to thrash almost everyone else too.

They hit Atletico Madrid for six and bagged five against Almeria before hammering Valladolid 6-0. They got four against Valencia – who were previously unbeaten away – five against Deportivo la Coruna and put another six past Malaga.

Over in Madrid, Real coach Bernd Schuster had been sacked for saying it was impossible to win at Camp Nou, yet he was proved right. Real were beaten 2-0 and Barcelona were on a run of 19 wins from 20 games – they drew the other – before a draw with Betis and shock defeats by Espanyol and Atletico seemingly gave Real Madrid, who had won 17 out of 18 since their defeat at Camp Nou, a second chance.

However, while it looked like the title race was going to re-open, it was just an illusion. Juande Ramos had done a marvellous job since taking over from Schuster but a stunning 6-2 victory for Barca at the Santiago Bernabeu was their best-ever clasico result and, in truth, they could have scored 15.

The title was theirs. Barcelona did not win again – nor did they need to. They scored 105 league goals, more than any side in any major league in Europe and only their own brilliance prevented them from breaking Real Madrid’s record of 107. With nothing to play for and reserves filling their side, they lost two of their last three matches and scored only twice.

They did all this while competing on three fronts too, becoming the first Spanish side to complete a treble.

They captured the Spanish Cup with a wonderful display against Athletic Bilbao at Mestalla, winning 4-1, and won the Champions League with a performance that in its control, vision and technique was a portrait of their footballing identity.

Even though Real Madrid had broken a club record in chasing Barcelona and tied up second place with weeks to spare, even though they accumulated enough points to have won the league in four of the last seven seasons – and would certainly have picked up more had they not thrown in the towel and lost their final four matches – they will look back on their season as a failure.

They had ended it empty-handed and once again had been eliminated from the Champions League at the first knockout stage. Humiliated by Liverpool, their football – even when successful – had been uninspiring.

Below them, post Dani Alves, Sevilla showed stability, if not style, in securing a return to the Champions League in third place, while a typically up-and-down season from an Atletico Madrid side that had no defence but a great attack ended with them back in fourth – thanks largely to a fantastic end-of-season run-in from Diego Forlan (see Headliners, page 16).

Atletico’s Champions League spot was effectively secured three weeks from the end of the season with a 1-0 win over Valencia, who had to settle for the Europa League. Los Ches must be wondering what the season might have held had it not been for their financial crisis. They went six games without a win during the period that their players went unpaid. Can it really be a coincidence? One thing is for sure – they now have an even more pressing need to sell their best players.

Valencia will be joined in the Europa League by neat Villarreal and battling cup runners-up Athletic Bilbao.

At the other end, Numancia’s opening-day victory over Barcelona didn’t prevent them from going straight back down to the second division, where they will be joined by Recreativo Huelva.

While few were surprised at their fate, the identity of the third relegated team was a major shock. Having spent over £34million in adding players to a squad described by the club’s owner as “the best in our history”, Real Betis found themselves down on the final day.

It was a dramatic finale with five teams battling to avoid the one remaining relegation place. Incredibly, all five had their destiny in their own hands, with Sporting needing to beat Recreativo, Osasuna trying to overcome Real Madrid, Getafe travelling in hope to Santander, while Betis and Valladolid faced one another.

For most of the evening Betis were safe. For 22 minutes Osasuna were down, then it was Sporting, then Osasuna again, then Sporting again. But with Sporting and Osasuna both coming back from a goal down to win 2-1, and Valladolid holding them to a 1-1 draw, Betis found themselves in the relegation zone.

One goal would change everything for everyone. Each of the five teams were a solitary goal in the wrong net away from relegation and one away from guaranteed survival. It stayed that way for over 20 agonising minutes until finally referees blew their whistles all over the country, bringing heartbreak to the green and white half of Seville.

Betis were down by a solitary goal. Not only would a single goal against Valladolid have saved them, a single goal in any of the other games would have saved them. In fact, a single goal in any one of the 38 games they played all season would have saved them as, level with Getafe, Betis went down on goal difference: minus 6 to minus 7. Barcelona got 105 of them and when it really mattered; Betis couldn’t get one.

Perhaps that arrow should have been directed at them, not Pep Guardiola’s men.