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Barça gifted 22nd Liga title as cross-town rival Espanyol ties 1-1 with Real Madrid

Víctor Sánchez saw red for this tackle on Real Madrid´s Gonzalo Higuaín.
Víctor Sánchez saw red for this tackle on Real Madrid´s Gonzalo Higuaín.ALEJANDRO QUINTAS / DIARIO AS

Barcelona clinched its 22nd Liga title before having to kick a ball this weekend as its cross-town rival Espanyol held Real Madrid 1-1 at the Cornellà-El Prat on Saturday night.

The tie left the Catalan club seven points clear of second-place Real going into its match against Atlético Madrid on Sunday evening, with just two matches left for José Mourinho’s side to play.

The title is Barça’s fourth in five years and provides a deservedly happy end to what has been an emotional rollercoaster of a first season in charge for coach Tito Vilanova. Ably stepping into Pep Guardiola’s sizeable shoes last year, he led Barça to a record-breaking start to its 2012-2013 Liga campaign. The team’s opening haul of 13 wins and one tie (against Real) in its first 14 games was the best ever in Liga history and, at one point in the season, the records seemed to be falling week after week, usually to star striker Leo Messi.

Among the landmarks the Argentinean ace notched up in the course of the campaign were a run of 19 consecutive games — a whole half season — in which he found the net, and the greatest tally of goals scored in a calendar year — 90, beating the great Gerd Müller’s 40-year old record of 84 in all competitions.

Then came the cancer relapse that took Vilanova away for several weeks to undergo treatment in New York, and an injury crisis that culminated — after his return to Camp Nou — with the humiliating 7-0 aggregate Champions League semifinal defeat to Bayern Munich.

If this Liga is anyone’s, it is Vilanova’s for what he has gone through”

“If this Liga is anyone’s, it is Vilanova’s for what he has gone through,” club president Sandro Rosell told Catalan TV station TV-3 after the title was confirmed on Saturday night. “For me this is the most special Liga title in the history of the club for the human component it has.”

Vilanova called up the whole squad — including the injured Carles Puyol, Éric Abidal and Víctor Valdés — to travel to the team’s game against Atlético Madrid at the Vicente Calderón on Sunday to celebrate the title. The club also plans to mark the victory with an open-top bus tour around the streets of Barcelona on Monday, the club has announced.

Speaking after Saturday’s match in the Catalan capital, Mourinho was one of the first to congratulate Barcelona on its championship triumph. “First of all, I want to salute Barcelona,” said the Portuguese coach, looking serious in the post-match press conference. “I want to congratulate their players, the technical team and the board. They have just won a league that was ours until today.”

With the job of salvaging some silverware in next Friday’s King’s Cup final — also against Atlético — top of his to-do list, Mourinho fielded a second-fiddle side that left Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema out of the starting line-up. And it found itself 1-0 down after 22 minutes when Cristian Stuani fired home after the ball fell to him from a corner.

Gonzalo Higuaín latched on to a Luka Modric free kick 13 minutes into the second half to head Real back level, but Espanyol, which had Víctor Sánchez sent off in added time, held on resolutely to hand its neighbors the title.

Despite Mourinho’s cautious team selection, Real’s players also failed to escape unscathed from the encounter. Young central defender Raphaël Varane had to be taken off after 19 minutes with an injury to his right knee and will play no part in Friday’s cup final.

Asked about the out-of-favor Pepe, who would be an obvious replacement for the 19-year-old Frenchman but has been sidelined for the last two games after leaping to the defense of goalkeeper Iker Casillas following disparaging comments by the Portuguese coach, Mourinho said: “This league has a new champion and you [the press] are talking to me about one player. The season we won the league, we wanted to talk about the league and I think the most logical thing to talk about right now is Barcelona.”