The atmosphere was carnivalesque long before kick off at Barcelona's final league game of the season at Camp Nou on Sunday night. All 98,000 seats were sold and tickets traded hands for ?400 (Dh1,800) on the sunny streets outside the stadium. All except the 500 travelling Valladolid fans expected a Barca victory, but the visitors needed to avoid defeat to stay up. Relegation would mean a threat to their livelihood and they started brightly, frustrating Barca with go-slow tactics inspired by Inter Milan.
Then news came through that Malaga had taken a 1-0 lead against Real Madrid, the only threat to Barca's hegemony. The carnival was given more impetus and Barca began to relax, Yaya Toure hitting the cross bar from distance and Lionel Messi dribbling past four defenders before shooting on target. The league's top scorer came close again after 15 minutes, but it was a Valladolid player who gave Barca the lead they needed, Luis Prieto turning the ball into his own goal from a Messi cross after 22 minutes.
Messi set up Pedro for Barca's second three minutes later, the Canarian topping a superb season and ensuring that the game was over with less than a third played. With the title effectively assured, the Camp Nou bounced up and down in abandon. Try as Valladolid did, Messi couldn't be contained. He added goals three and four in the second half and, in doing so, he equalled the club record, 47, for goals scored set by Ronaldo in 1996-97 - and that was in a season with four more league games. "Madrid! Salute the champions!" sang the crowd.
Real deserve much credit for pushing Barca until the final game of the season. They can be accused of trying to buy success, but in Cristiano Ronaldo, the ?93 million summer signing from Manchester United, they purchased the best player money could buy - assuming that Messi will never leave Barca. Yet it's clear why the Catalans are worthy champions and Real are not: when the two giants met, Barca won convincingly both times. Had Real managed to hold Barca in the Bernabeu, they would be champions.
Jose Mourinho may be strongly linked with the Real job and is probably of the opinion that he is the only coach able to turn their fortunes around, but many players and Zinedine Zidane, the Real legend and now a club ambassador, believe that Manuel Pellegrini should be given more time at the helm. His side were knocked out of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League too early, but there is much evidence that while his team are forceful rather than spellbinding in their style, they are an emerging force - even if the Madrid press and fans demand instant fixes.
The Barca juggernaut hopes to roll on with Pep Guardiola at the helm. Club presidential elections next month will dominate the agenda now the season has closed, but all the prospective candidates have retaining Guardiola at the top of their mandates. The out-of-favour Thierry Henry almost certainly played his last Barca game when he came on a second-half substitute for Bojan. More will be demanded of Zlatan Ibrahimovic after an indifferent first season since arriving from Inter Milan, but the rest of the squad remain in excellent shape, with Messi the unquestionable star.
Third by an embarrassing margin below the big two, Valencia overachieved to finish there and qualify for the Champions League. That will be a key bargaining chip in attempting to keep hold of their best players, such as David Villa and David Silva, the Spanish internationals, as well as Unai Emery, their highly rated coach. Villa is still expected to depart, probably for Barcelona, but then the same was said a year ago.
Sevilla may not have touched the heights of 2006 and 2007, but a fourth-place finish and a cup final appearance tomorrow is a solid return. The surprise of the season was Mallorca's fifth place, thanks to their excellent home form, which is ironic given their stadium is one of the most inhospitable and sparsely populated in the country. A bear pit it is not. Getafe, another ailing club who struggle to get five- figure crowds, will also play in the Europa League, with Villarreal's late surge not sufficient for them to climb into the top six after a dreadful start to the campaign. Better will be expected next term.
Atletico Madrid enter the Europa League as holders. They could add the Copa Del Rey to what will be judged a successful season, but they remain woefully inconsistent in the league. At the bottom end, Xerez, Tenerife and Valladolid were all relegated, the final three positions remaining unchanged on the final day. All showed fight towards the climax of the season, The final word, as so often, goes to Barca, who amassed a record 99 points and saw the best player in the world improve markedly. They may have spent big on the likes of Ibrahimovic, but a genuine football philosophy and largely homegrown squad lies at the heart of their success. Following Guardiola's statement on the pitch that: "We won't see the likes of these players again," the celebrations continued long into the Catalan night for what will be remembered as a golden age for FC Barcelona. email@example.com
Goalkeeper Victor Valdes (Barcelona) Defenders Dani Alves (Barcelona Gerard Pique (Barcelona) Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) Carles Puyol (Barcelona) Midfield Xavi (Barcelona) Didier Zokora (Sevilla) Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid) Attack Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) Lionel Messi (Barcelona) David Villa (Valencia) Substitutes Gonazalo Higuain (Real Madrid) Borja Valero (Mallorca) Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao) Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid) Ever Banega (Valencia)