La Liga Wrap Up: Barca campeones while relegation battle goes to final day

Matchday 37 saw the La Liga title race come to an end – despite a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick for Real against Espanyol – as Barcelona triumphed 1-0 over Atletico Madrid. At the other end of the table, it’s still the great unknown as Deportivo La Coruña and Granada scored massive victories to lift themselves out of the relegation zone. Meanwhile, Valencia’s draw with Celta and Sevilla’s win over Almeria mean that the final Champions League spot will also go to the final day. It’s all covered in our La Liga Wrap Up.

Exactly one year from when Atletico Madrid traveled to the Camp Nou and Diego Godin secured the league title for Los Colchoneros, Luis Enrique’s Barcelona made the return journey to the Vicente Calderon and a Lionel Messi goal was enough to hand them the 2014/15 title. While there was not the same tension around last year’s Matchday 38 fixture with a winner-takes-all scenario – Barcelona sitting four points clear of Real essentially meaning they could afford a loss – it was still significant as Barca won their first part of this season’s potential treble; and consigned Real to a season without a major trophy.

Even more remarkable is considering just a few months ago this was a club in crisis, with the manager’s job in question and resignations at a boardroom level. Now, they were celebrating on the Calderon pitch as champions, and still have two more trophies to play for.

Fernando Torres started for Atleti while Luis Suarez was absent from the Barcelona squad with a thigh injury, and despite the presence of plenty of other star attackers it was Rojiblancos centre-back Jose Gimenez who had the first real chance, forcing a fine save from Claudio Bravo from a typically dangerous Atletico set-piece.

Atleti had the upper hand in the early exchanges, but Barcelona weathered the storm and settled into their groove from there, and the Luis Enrique incarnation of the Blaugrana was on full display as the direct strategy from the Catalans saw the Atletico Madrid defence uncharacteristically out of place and scrambling to keep the match scoreless.

A penalty for handball was waived away by the referee, while a contentious free-kick on the edge of the box for a tug on Dani Alves’ shirt was met with protests from both sides – Atleti believing the Brazilian had dived, while the visitors were adamant the foul had occurred inside the box. The ensuing free-kick was taken by the newly-tattooed Messi and clipped the bar on its way over from the tight angle; though Jan Oblak appeared to have it covered. The Slovenian was put to work again moments later to tip over a dipping shot from distance from Alves as Barca looked to seize the advantage.

While Barcelona were enjoying the run of the play as the sides went in 0-0 at half-time, Atleti reminded the champions-in-waiting that it counted for little if they continued their profligacy in front of goal, and a free header for Diego Godin early in the second half went narrowly over the bar while a quickly-taken free-kick saw Torres fire straight at Claudio Bravo.

With both sides creating chances but neither seeming capable of taking them, a moment of magic was required to break the deadlock and it arrived just after the hour mark, courtesy of Leo Messi.

A Dani Alves cross was easily dealt with by the Atleti defence, and as the ball came out to Jordi Alba on the far side, with eight defenders in the box, there seemed little danger.

Alba moved the ball onto Messi and, like he has done throughout his career, the Argentine magician defied all logic, playing a quick one-two with Pedro and, while surrounded by five Atleti defenders, squeezed the ball into the bottom corner to give Barcelona the lead.

It was a goal worthy of winning the league: not powerful or spectacularly unsavable, but incredible in the fine close control and precise finish while surrounded by defenders; so calm in such chaotic surroundings. And it did win them the league, for that was how it remained at the Calderon, with both sides continuing the pattern of the first hour, unable to make the most of their opportunities.

“We’re going to celebrate and relax for a couple days to have a good time and then we want to prepare well for the Copa del Rey,” said Barca manager Luis Enrique following the victory in his post-match press conference, courtesy of Inside Spanish Football.

“It’s very special because of what the Copa del Rey is and we’re playing the final at home in the most beautiful stadium in the world. The double would be more interesting.

“A new cycle? I don’t know. I’d like it to be. We have two decisive games ahead of us and we have to show that we’re the best in the world against our rivals. I’m not the one to judge if my contributions led to the team’s success. 10 months ago I took over this team with a lot of changes, after winning nothing. We knew there wouldn’t be time for transition and we tried to do things in the best way possible. There are two titles left but we have La Liga in our pocket.”

Leo Messi celebrating his winner and, ultimately, league-deciding goal.
Leo Messi celebrating his winner and, ultimately, league-deciding goal.

While Barcelona were securing the league title in Madrid, fierce rivals Real Madrid were in Catalonia doing all they could to keep the race alive as they kicked off simultaneously. A perfect hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo lifted them to a 4-1 win over Espanyol, but it was too little too late for Real who will have to settle for second place, and a season without a major trophy.

Despite the slim hopes of snatching the title from Barcelona, Real’s first-half performance was sub-standard, with Los Blancos registering only one shot on target before the break at the Power8 Stadium (surely one of the worst-named stadiums in world sport).

Ronaldo had Real ahead on the hour when he finished with a low strike inside the box, however Real struggled to properly take control and an error from Keylor Navas – filling in for Iker Casillas – saw Christian Stuani equalise with 17 minutes to go. Madrid retook the lead shortly after though through Marcelo, before Ronaldo added another two to notch yet another La Liga hat-trick and take him to 45 league goals for the season – four ahead of Messi – and virtually guarantee him the Pichichi.

Ronaldo netted a hat-trick against Espanyol to all but secure the Pichichi ahead of Messi.
Ronaldo netted a hat-trick against Espanyol to all but secure the Pichichi ahead of Messi.

With the title decided the focus now shifts to the rest of the table where it is all still to fight for, with crucial results impacting both the European places and the fight for survival.

At the bottom end, Deportivo La Coruña secured a vital 2-0 win over Levante to move themselves above Almeria and into 17th position on the table. Alberto Lopo opened the scoring after 21 minutes before second-half substitute and versatile fullback Juanfran made it 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining.

Meanwhile in San Sebastian, Granada made it three wins on the bounce with a 3-0 victory over David Moyes’ Real Sociedad, and the Nazaries – who looked dead and buried only a couple of weeks ago – now also find themselves above the drop zone in 16th position thanks to their positive head-to-head record with Depor. Following a scoreless first half and dull opening to the second, the match looked destined for a scoreless draw before a late 14-minute onslaught by La Grana powered them home at Anoeta. Youssef El-Arabi broke the deadlock from close range with 16 minutes remaining before Robert Ibañez’s shot took a huge deflection en route to lobbing goalkeeper Eñaut Zubikarai five minutes later. Ruben Rochina then put the icing on the cake in the 88th minute with the goal of the game – a 50-yard effort catching Zubikarai out of position.

Elsewhere, Eibar continued their horror second half of the season with a 1-1 draw at Getafe, and despite earning a point the Basques remain in 19th position for the second consecutive week. Borja’s 36th minute goal cancelled out Fredy Hinestroza’s header three minutes earlier, but Los Armeros could not come up with the winner. Having sat in the top half for most of the season, these past two weeks have been the only time that Eibar have been in the bottom three and a victory on the final day against Cordoba is the only chance they have of survival.

In a match that had ramifications at both ends of the table, Sevilla defeated Almeria 2-1 to bring them within one point of fourth-placed Valencia – who drew 1-1 with Celta Vigo – and has left Almeria reeling in 19th position behind Eibar on head-to-head. It may yet get worse for Almeria – who face Valencia on the final day – who are still yet to learn if they will have three points deducted while their case is pending at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. If the deduction is confirmed the Rojiblancos will join Cordoba in the Segunda next season, with 19th place their best possible finish.

Ignoring the potential points deduction, two of four teams will be relegated on the final day. Currently, Granada and Depor on 34 points sit above Eibar and Almeria on 32, while all sides, bar Eibar, have tough assignments on the final day. Depor travel to the Camp Nou to face the champions, while in-form Granada host Atletico Madrid who are still yet to definitively sew up third place as Valencia, three points behind, hold the head-to-head advantage. The aforementioned Valencia travel to Almeria and could finish anywhere from 3rd to 5th depending on results, while Eibar play last-placed Cordoba at the Ipurua where they require victory and two of the other three to lose.

And finally, the best viewing over the weekend was at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero, where Elche and Athletic Bilbao played out a five-goal thriller. Elche, who were safely on 37 points prior to kick-off, jumped out to a two-goal lead before the interval thanks to a brace from talismanic striker Jonathas, who broke the offside trap for the first before slotting home when Athletic switched off during a quick free-kick on the stroke of half-time.

Elche looked to sit on their lead during the second 45 and rarely threatened as Los Leones struggled to make their possession count. With 10 minutes remaining however Ager Aketxe gave the away side a sniff with a powerful left-footed strike, and seven minutes later Mikel San Jose had the scores level with an excellent volley from outside the area that found the bottom corner. San Jose should have had a double in stoppage-time when his header was wrongly adjudged offside, but it wasn’t to matter as Iñaki Williams ran onto the former Liverpool man’s flicked header a minute later to fire between the legs of Przemyslaw Tyton to snatch all three points.

Having endured a poor start to the season, Ernesto Valverde’s side have resurrected their campaign and sit in the final Europa League spot, two points ahead of Malaga, and have a date with Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final. Considering there was a genuine fear of a relegation battle some months ago, the San Mames club will no doubt be ending the season in high spirits, and with a sense of relief.

Results in Full:

Real Sociedad 0-3 Granada; Atletico Madrid 0-1 Barcelona; Deportivo La Coruña 2-0 Levante; Villarreal 2-1 Malaga; Cordoba 1-2 Rayo Vallecano; Elche 2-3 Athletic Bilbao; Sevilla 2-1 Almeria; Getafe 1-1 Eibar; Valencia 1-1 Celta Vigo; Espanyol 1-4 Real Madrid.

About Mark Houston 86 Articles
Mark is an editor of The Blog FC and has also contributed to other sport and music sites. He predominantly writes about La Liga but also follows Europe's other top leagues and the local A-League. There's a special place in his heart for bearded deep-lying playmakers and he's a proud member of the Goalkeepers Union.