Fireworks flew into the sky above the Camp Nou on Sunday, their thunderous booms triggering waves of reciprocal, health-and-safety-be-damned banger lighting on balconies across the city. FC Barcelona fans partied with well-practiced aplomb to celebrate their third successive league victory but there was a noticeable lack of abandon in the air.
Partly it was the prospect of another Champions League final. The possibility of claiming the biggest prize in club football meant that at least some Cava had to be kept on ice until after the Catalans have faced Manchester United at Wembley. But also taking the edge off the celebrations was the fact that the league had been as good as won since the 29th of November.
That night, Barça played Real Madrid and handed out the biggest thrashing of José Mourinho's managerial career. It was five-nil but it could have been more: it was a humiliation, a lesson, a merciless dismantling of Madrid's expensively-assembled machine.
Until that point in the season, the league was wide open. Encouraged by his employers at the Bernabeu to match Barcelona not just in results but in attacking football, Mourinho's side had been playing out of their skins: zero losses, seven wins in a row, thirty-three goals in the previous twelve games, a point ahead of Barça.
"You have to have character. When you lose by five goals you can't leave crying; you have to go and work harder. The season has not ended today."
It was all irrelevant. Whether Mourinho's Plan A had been to attack Barcelona will always remain unknown but when Xavi put the ball past Casillas after just nine minutes the Portuguese was left with no other option. As his defenders pushed forward, Barcelona's players streamed in behind them in wave after wave of brilliant, ball-passing supremacy. The world's top-earning football club was made to look utterly inadequate.
Unusually humble in the post-match press conference, Mourinho told the assembled hacks that "You have to have character. When you lose by five goals you can't leave crying; you have to go and work harder. The season has not ended today."
He was wrong: it had. Unable to risk losing further points in an effort to match Barcelona's scintillating possession football, José reverted to type. The bus was duly parked and his team took on a familiar shape: solid, coherent, hard-to-beat and seemingly set up to play for one-nil wins. Just as at Chelsea and Inter Milan in previous years, he had enough talent in the squad and enough team spirit in the locker room to steamroller the occasional weaker team but this was a side built to gather points not plaudits.
Often, that's enough. Players like winning almost as much as they like getting paid; uninspiring wins are better than valiant defeats. But when your most bitter rivals are winning too, and doing it in greater style and -- most importantly -- looking like they're having the time of their lives in the process, things change.
Since beating Madrid it has been all smiles in Barcelona. The confidence created by that single game gave Barcelona the liberty to expand rather than contract. Their Harlem Globetrotters-style exhibition football depends on a diamond-hard self belief and Barça's shone like never before. Messi was hailed in the international press as the world's greatest player. The praise is justified but as the Argentinian was given free rein to explore his potential, his rival for the title -- Cristiano Ronaldo -- was pulled back, sometimes played deep and out of position; one week here, another week there. Grimly getting on with the job he has nevertheless managed to net an astonishing thirty-eight times with a game left to play, equalling the Pichichi record for goals scored in a season.
Thirty-eight goals, but still unhappy. As when previous Mourinho teams have played Barcelona, Madrid looked better in the rematches than the first round. The handbrake on the big white bus was enough to hold Barcelona to a draw at the Bernabeu in the return La Liga fixture and even grab a win (one-nil, of course) to claim the Copa Del Rey. Ronaldo scored the winner but his boss's hit-'em-on-the-break tactics in that game and over the two legs of the Champions League semi-final were clearly taking their toll on his mood.
"No, I don't like it but I have to adapt to what is asked of me," he said, scowling, when questioned on the subject : "This is the way it is. We have a strategy."
The strategy didn't work and now Ronaldo and his teammates must grind their teeth and watch their beaming adversaries parade yet another league trophy on their way to Wembley. A furious Mourinho has railed against imagined conspiracies in UEFA, the Spanish Football Federation, referees both domestic and international and anyone else he can point the finger of blame at. He must now hope that his old rival and fellow arch excuse-maker Alex Ferguson can find a way to bring some misery into Pep Guardiola's side. While this Barcelona may or may not be the best team in the world, they are almost certainly the happiest and have been since the 29th of November, the night that José lost the league.
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