Barça reign supreme
FIFA.com brings you a review of the 2008/09 season in Spain's top flight, a campaign best remembered for the sparkling football and attacking prowess of an Barcelona side that pulled off a historic treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League.
Having begun their league campaign in inauspicious fashion with defeat away to Numancia and a home draw against Racing Santander, Barcelona and their new coach Josep Guardiola, in his first season as a top-flight boss, were under pressure from the off. The Barça machine clicked into gear with a 6-1 win at Sporting Gijon, however, thus setting a standard that eventually saw them finish 11 points clear of closest rivals Real Madrid.
Driven by home-grown players Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes, as well as judicious new signings Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Seydou Keita, the Azulgranas conceded a divisional low of 35 goals while scoring 105 at the other end - just two short of Madrid's record from 1989/90.
Another of Guardiola's achievements was the return to fine form of world-class front-runners Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry. The Cameroon goal-getter had been on the verge of leaving the club last summer, while Henry put a low-key first season under Frank Rijkaard behind him. And along with Argentinian wizard Lionel Messi, they made up Europe's most effective attacking trident, scoring over 100 goals between them including 72 in the league.
The Blaugranas have broken a host of records along the way, including the highest points tally in the 20-team top flight (87); most home wins in a row (nine) and scoring at least once for 35 consecutive matches. Valdes also earned the Zamora trophy awarded to the keeper with fewest goals conceded though Eto'o was overtaken late on in the race for the top scorer's award, el Pichichi, and the European Golden Shoe by Atletico de Madrid's 32-goal hitman Diego Forlan.
Reigning champions Real Madrid were left trailing in the wake of Guardiola's Culé locomotive and, after a season marked by controversy and speculation off the field, appear set for a radical overhaul from top to bottom. That said, Los Blancos were still in the title hunt until May's clásico at the Bernabeu, where Barça all but sealed the crown with a historic 6-2 success.
Indeed, the team led by Juande Ramos - who had replaced Bernd Schuster at the Madrid helm in December - had at that stage managed to close within four points of Barcelona thanks to a series of gritty and efficient performances in the second half of the season.
This consistency after the winter break ensured Los Merengues finished in the second direct Champions League qualifying berth ahead of Sevilla, who also booked a place in the elite competition. Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, thanks in large part to Uruguayan striker Forlan and his 17-goal partner-in-crime Sergio Aguero, clinched a spot in the Champions League preliminary round for the second season running after a final-day win over Almeria.
Villarreal and Valencia, for their part, will contest next season's UEFA Europa League after finishing fifth and sixth respectively, while Copa del Rey runners-up Athletic Bilbao take Spain's third berth in the revamped competition. Deportivo La Coruna and newly promoted Malaga, the season's surprise outfit, were also in the chase for European competition only to miss out at the death.
Down in the lower reaches of the table, Barça's city neighbours Espanyol fought back superbly after the appointment of former player Mauricio Pochettino as coach. Having been rock bottom at the halfway point of the season, Los Periquitos eventually survived comfortably to ensure another year in the top tier.
With Recreativo de Huelva, Spain's oldest club, and Numancia already relegated going into the final day of La Liga action, there were five teams still battling to avoid filling the final berth in the drop zone. In the end it was Real Betis, held 1-1 at home by Valladolid, who lost out while fans of Getafe, Valladolid, Osasuna and Sporting Gijon were able to celebrate their dramatic escape.