MADRID (Reuters) - Far from losing their cutting edge after Pep Guardiola’s exit, Barcelona eased to one of their most straightforward La Liga titles as new coach Tito Vilanova fought off cancer to help steer them to a 22nd domestic crown.
Their fourth title in five years - sealed after Real Madrid’s 1-1 draw at Espanyol on Saturday - comes close to matching their record run of four straight triumphs from 1991-94 when Dutchman Johan Cruyff moulded Guardiola and the rest of the squad into the famous “Dream Team”.
With Guardiola relaxing in New York after four spectacularly successful seasons, Barca amassed more points in the first half of the campaign than any team before them - 55 from a possible 57 - to storm 11 clear of Atletico Madrid and 18 ahead of stuttering champions Real.
Appointing Guardiola’s assistant and close friend Vilanova to replace him resulted in a smooth transition helped by World Player of the Year Lionel Messi continuing to make the extraordinary appear routine.
The Argentina forward’s goal against Celta Vigo at the end of March meant he became the first player to score in consecutive games against every one of his club’s 19 rivals in the league.
A hamstring injury sidelined him for three La Liga matches last month but he has since taken his tally to 46 from 31 appearances - 12 ahead of Real forward and great rival Cristiano Ronaldo - and Messi has his own record of 50 goals from last term well within his grasp.
Real’s title defense got off to a terrible start when they lost two and drew one of their opening four matches, although they did manage a 2-2 draw in October’s ‘Clasico’ against Barca at the Nou Camp.
A steady stream of media reports detailing alleged rifts between combative coach Jose Mourinho and various members of the squad did little to ease the tension, and Ronaldo’s revelation that he was unhappy prompted speculation Real’s top scorer might seek an exit.
Mourinho, who seems likely to move on at the end of the season, acknowledged his expensively assembled squad appeared to lack motivation against the lesser teams and they were also afflicted by the ‘curse of Andalusia’.
Four of their five defeats have come in the southern Spanish region - against Sevilla, Granada, Malaga and Real Betis - and they squandered a 1-0 halftime lead in a shock 2-1 reverse at city neighbors Getafe in August.
Real have also been forced to rely more heavily than last term on Ronaldo.
The Portuguese’s strike partners Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain have had a relatively barren run with only 23 goals between them - Benzema has 10 and Higuain 14 - after 36 matches compared with 42 at the same stage last season.
Barca stumbled as the second half of the campaign got underway and they were stunned by the news that Vilanova needed more treatment for cancer and would be leaving for New York.
They suffered a 3-2 defeat at Sociedad in January and have since lost 2-1 at Real and drawn at Valencia, Celta Vigo and Athletic Bilbao.
Real had, however, long since given up on the title and turned their attention to the Champions League, the great obsession of the club and Mourinho.
They managed to dump Barca out of the King’s Cup with a fine performance at the Nou Camp in late February only days before beating them 2-1 at the Bernabeu in the league.
Vilanova returned to Spain to oversee the final few weeks of the campaign and Barca’s latest title - they are an unassailable seven points ahead of second-placed Real - will prompt mixed emotions among players, coaching staff and fans.
There will be joy at immediately wresting the league crown back from bitter rivals Real mixed with relief that Vilanova appears to be on the road to recovery and Eric Abidal’s liver transplant seems to have been a complete success.
However, there will also be huge frustration that they missed out on a third Champions League triumph in five years thanks to this month’s humiliating exit at the hands of Bayern Munich, their worst aggregate defeat in Europe.
Failure in the all-important continental competition has prompted talk of a possible squad overhaul in the close season, but with a number of promising youngsters coming through from the B team wholesale changes are unlikely.
Due to his health issues, a question mark remains over Vilanova’s future, and he was the target of some criticism towards the end of the season for a perceived failure to react when Barca were under pressure.
Nonetheless, with the likes of Messi in his side, few would bet against Barca returning to the European summit before too long.
Editing by Pritha Sarkar