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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

El clasico: Barcelona will host Real Madrid proud of their season despite Champions League exit

Ahead of the big clash, which is essentially a dead rubber, Andy Mitten says Catalans can be happy seeing as they won the domestic league and cup double

Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates had an excellent season despite not reaching the Champions League semi-finals. David Ramos / Getty Images
Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates had an excellent season despite not reaching the Champions League semi-finals. David Ramos / Getty Images

In March 2017, Barcelona lost to Deportivo la Coruna, effectively ending their title bid last season.

Even though they would win 10 of their next 11 games, they had left it too late to catch Real Madrid. They would not be making the same mistake this time round.

On Sunday, in that very attractive Galician port city, Barca beat Deportivo 4-2, condemning them to relegation with Lionel Messi’s 30th hat-trick. Victory sealed a 25th league title, prompting a rush of fans to celebrate by the Canaletes fountain on Barcelona’s famous La Rambla thoroughfare.

An open-top bus will parade through the city and the team will rightly be lauded. They will also be rightly envious that they are not playing in the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League this week.

While they have stumbled in Europe, the Catalans have only lost one league game since that conclusive defeat in La Coruna 13 months ago.

No team has gone so long undefeated in Spanish football history as this side’s 41 league matches. No team has ever gone a full domestic season unbeaten, as Ernesto Valverde’s team, which he built around Lionel Messi, are only three games from doing.

It is a staggering turnaround from the start of the season when Camp Nou was filled with despair, dissent and a campaign to oust club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who on Sunday boasted of “the seventh [Primera] Liga title in 10 years".

Valverde has been a calming influence, ensuring that Barca remain Spain’s pre-eminent force as they have been for much of this century. Their latest title has rarely been in doubt, looking likely even before the halfway point after Real Madrid’s poor start to the season.

Meanwhile, Barca won their opening seven league games – a surprise given the summer chaos when Neymar was sold against the club’s will and new recruits including Paulinho and Ousame Dembele appeared rushed or overpriced.

Atletico Madrid, the first team to take points off Barca with a 1-1 draw on October 14, looked the most capable challengers. But when Diego Simeone’s side were defeated 1-0 at Camp Nou on March 4, the league was all but over.

Barca went to the Bernabeu to play newly-crowned world champions Real Madrid on December 23 and won emphatically 3-0, underlining their domestic superiority. Already strong, they strengthened still further with the signing of Philippe Coutinho the following month.

The Brazilian – like his compatriot Paulinho – has settled seamlessly into Camp Nou life. Barca hope Arthur, 21, their next Brazilian signing from Gremio who has long been compared to the outgoing Andres Iniesta, will be equally adaptable.

Madrid are Barca’s next opponents at Camp Nou next Sunday in a clasico where Catalans are keen for Madrid to perform a guard of honour for the new league champions, just at they did in the Bernabeu a decade ago. Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane previously said he would not and his players felt slighted when Barca’s players did not afford them that honour after Madrid were crowned world champions in December.

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Read more

Lionel Messi hat-trick leads Barcelona to Primera Liga title

Barca to say farewell to Andres Iniesta at end of season

Andy Mitten: Real Madrid could prove party poopers

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But the priority for Madrid is retaining the Champions League for a third successive season. Barca’s venerated stars will not have that distraction, but do have one eye on avoiding injury ahead of the World Cup finals.

Barca have also been the pre-eminent force in Spain’s domestic cup, hammering a competent but inconsistent Sevilla side 5-0 in Madrid nine days ago, but the world’s best player Lionel Messi wants to be winning Europe’s biggest cup competition rather than Spain’s.

Barca’s 3-0 Champions League defeat in Rome stung – especially as they had won the home leg 4-1 – and the Catalans need to get over the psychological barrier of going out in the last eight of football’s top competition. They expected to do better in Europe and costs were trimmed in several club departments when they went out to Roma.

But winning a very good domestic league and cup double so comfortably still makes this a very successful season.

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