Barcelona confirmed their dominance of the 2008-09 Liga with a 6-2 humiliation of arch-rivals Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu.

By Sid Lowe in Madrid
This year’s league title race effectively came to an end one sunny bank holiday weekend in Madrid at the start of May as Barcelona, champions for the 19th time, wrapped up one of the most brilliant campaigns in their history, in which they have scored more goals than ever before, and left Real Madrid empty-handed in second place.

No real surprise there. But what was a shock was that it took so long, that there was even a title race at all, that Real Madrid versus FCB on May 2, 2009, ended up really mattering. It might have ended in humiliation for Juande Ramos’ side, but it is to their enormous credit that the season even stretched to May.

When Barca beat Madrid 2-0 at Camp Nou in December, the cules celebrated in classic style with chants of “campeones, campeones” ringing out around the stadium. So too did the fans’ favourite: “Madrid, cabron, saluda al campeon!” (Madrid, you bastards, salute the champions!) In the Barcelona dressing room they were leaping about cheering too, and you could hardly blame them.

Barcelona were 12 points clear at the top of the table and no team had ever overcome a lead that big at Christmas. Meanwhile, Madrid were down in sixth and in crisis. Even little relegation-threatened Getafe, the capital’s third club, had scored more goals. Coach Bernd Schuster had been sacked for saying it was impossible to win at Camp Nou, yet he had been proven right. So far behind had Madrid slipped, so inferior were they, that they were congratulating themselves on only losing 2-0.

“Considering the situation, we’re satisfied,” admitted Raul, pretty much saying it all.

Considering the situation. Considering the crippling injuries, the suspensions and the state of the squad. Considering the institutional crisis, the dreadful form of key players and the falling fitness of others. Considering the fantastic displays produced by Barcelona, the side that had won 12 and drawn one of their last 13 games.

The title race was all but over. When defender Michel Salgado insisted that the celebrations had hurt his pride and that Madrid would fight back, when he claimed that he and his team-mates would take revenge at the Bernabeu, most people thought he was slightly mad. They didn’t have a hope in hell.

If Madrid were going to win the league they needed Barcelona to lose four games, even though they had lost just once all season (on the opening day). They needed Barcelona to drop 12 points when they had dropped only seven all season. Even then, Madrid would still have to win every single match. And there was no way that was going to happen. Was there?

Actually, there very nearly was. Incredibly, under new coach Ramos, Real Madrid won 17 out of 18 matches following that Camp Nou defeat. It hadn’t always been wonderfully entertaining but Madrid did go half-a-season unbeaten. They had played every side except Barcelona and dropped points only once, in a 1-1 draw at home to city rivals Atletico. Ramos had set a new club record; it was the best run in Madrid’s history.

Meanwhile, Barcelona had drawn with Betis, and been beaten by Atletico and Espanyol. In three weeks, Barca’s lead went from 12 points to just four, leaving the sports daily Marca screaming “the league is reborn” while their counterparts AS were declaring “a licence to dream”. More importantly, they both insisted, Barcelona were running scared. “Barca: do panic!” read one headline as the two Madrid dailies offered up their version of the same thing: Barcelona were, they ever so pleasantly put it, soiling themselves.

The lead climbed back to six points after Madrid drew with Atletico, then dropped down to four again when Barca drew in Valencia and Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-2 in preparation for the clasico. It was, the capital’s press insisted, a done deal: Madrid would beat Barcelona and the lead would be just one point with four games remaining. Barcelona would collapse.
“If I was Barcelona, I’d be scared”, said Madrid full-back Marcelo. It was the perfect opportunity for Madrid.

What everyone failed to notice was that it was the perfect opportunity for Barcelona too. Everyone talked about the pressure on Barcelona, about the tension created by Madrid’s pursuit, the fact that Juande Ramos’ team simply wouldn’t give up and Barca’s frustration of failing to shake them off.

It seemed that every time Barcelona looked in their rear-view mirror, Madrid were there, breathing down their necks. As the Catalan joke had it, Madrid were like a zombie: horrible to look at but they keep on coming and just won’t die.

Part two tomorrow.