MADRID // Jose Mourinho promised improved results in his second season at Real Madrid, and the Portuguese coach delivered with a record 32nd Spanish league trophy to put a close to Barcelona's domestic dominance.
But while Real set a record goal total and Mourinho became the first manager to win a seventh league title across four different European leagues, his failure to give Real a chance at playing for a 10th European Cup by way of a Champions League final appearance will leave a bittersweet taste hanging over this season's accomplishment.
Madrid secured the Spanish title with a 3-0 victory at Athletic Bilbao last night, with Gonzalo Higuain again scoring the goal that clinched the title – just as the Argentina forward did four years ago.
Cristiano Ronaldo led a potent attack that surpassed the record mark of 109 goals set by Madrid 22 years ago, with 115 goals and counting, and two games still to play.
Ronaldo's 58 goals include 44 in the league, with the Portugal forward still dueling with Barcelona rival Lionel Messi – who leads with 46 – for the new mark.
"No one gifted us anything," Mourinho, always blunt, said last night.
Real may not have met expectations in Europe, despite reaching a second straight semi-final, but at least they finally figured out a way to beat Barcelona.
Barcelona had dominated Spain's fiercest rivalry since coach Pep Guardiola's arrival in 2008, winning nine of 14 with only a single loss until Real's victory in last month's el clasico allowed them to take control of the title race and tilt the balance of power in Spain.
The 2-1 victory at the Camp Nou not only stretched Real's lead to seven points, but compounded a miserable week for Barcelona when Chelsea eliminated them from the Champions League semi-final and Guardiola announced his decision to leave the club at the close of the season.
Real's turnaround started in January with a 2-2 Copa del Rey draw at Barcelona, a result that swung the momentum in their favour despite Barcelona winning the series to advance to the cup final.
Mourinho's attacking scheme led by Mesut Oezil and Kaka helped the visitors dominate that game as "Los Meringues" rallied from a 2-0 deficit to draw and put a dent in the belief of Guardiola's team, which had won 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in December.
Jolted into believing they could finally compete with their arch rivals, Real gained further confidence as they went on a 15-game winning streak – to tie a 1960/61 team record – after the December loss to establish a 10-point lead over Barcelona by the time the three-time defending champions lost 3-2 in subzero temperatures at Osasuna in March.
The Madrid media was already talking about the Spanish leaders moving 16 points ahead by the time of the season's second clasico to inflict further embarrassment on the Catalans, who would get to perform the traditional "pasillo" – passage of honour for the champions – at the Camp Nou if they could stretch the advantage.
But Barcelona won all 12 games leading up to last month's second clasico, with Mourinho no longer speaking with the Spanish media after a third draw in five rounds saw his team's advantage cut to four points.
Real showed no fear to win 2-1 at Barcelona on April 20 to all but secure the title and cap their turnaround from the start of the season when they lost to Barcelona in a Spanish Super Cup match that descended into a brawl and is best remembered for Mourinho poking Guardiola's successor Tito Vilanova in the eye.
The eye poke continued an ugly trend by Mourinho, whose surly behaviour and constant conspiracy theories were ultimately unappreciated by fans, who jeered at the coach for the first time following the Copa del Rey loss to Barcelona.
Daily sports newspaper Marca, a staunch Real supporter, called the club an "insignificant, distasteful team" after the 2-1 cup loss.
"Madrid has thrown its entire history overboard by electing this woeful style, which did not produce a single benefit," Marca columnist Santi Segurola wrote. "Spanish football remembers a lot of [Real] teams with less talent that made it more difficult for Barcelona."
Mourinho replied by abandoning his normally defensive style in the return, and the subsequent 2-2 draw appeased supporters. Yet disappointment over Mourinho's impact on Real's image simmers in the Spanish capital despite the 49 year old making good on his promise of improved results.
But Mourinho's decision to play defensively when leading Bayern Munich 2-0 after 15 minutes of their Champions League semi-final return ultimately cost his team, as they sat back and Bayern dominated to eventually score a necessary away goal before winning on penalties.
On the field, Ronaldo was not the only player who elevated Real to the title as they lost only twice through 36 games, winning 30 of those.
Karim Benzema has 20 goals in the league and 31 overall and coupled with Gozalo Higuain's 22 league goals, Real are still inflating the record goal total set by a trio.
Midfielder Xabi Alonso proved indispensable in midfield with Borussia Dortmund signing Nuri Sahin never easing into the team, while defenders Sergio Ramos and Marcelo continued to improve as new signing Fabio Coentrao failed to justify his €30 million (nearly Dh145m) transfer.
Whether Higuain and Kaka remain next season is a question mark as the pair featured less over the stretch run, with the Brazilian playmaker and former world player of the year making only four appearances since the beginning of April.
Mourinho has pledged his commitment to see out the deal he signed after bolting from Inter Milan, and the obsession over the Champions League is bound to thrive for both manager and club.
"This one was the hardest," Mourinho said of his collective league titles, which include two at FC Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. "But the next one will be even harder."
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