Enrique deserves credit at Barca, and Man United to blame for De Gea unrest
In the end, there was less drama than anticipated. Barcelona's trip to the Calderon to seal the title with Sunday's 1-0 win felt a bit like stamping a time card: routine, dull and a necessary step on the way to the title. Exactly a year earlier, it was Atletico winning the title in Barca's house; now it was the other way around.
Luis Enrique, who had won absolutely nothing as a manager before Sunday, is on the verge of winning the treble (La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey) in his debut campaign at the Camp Nou. The fact that another guy -- his old teammate, in fact, Pep Guardiola -- did it six years ago somehow lessens the novelty, but not the significance.
You're probably dulled by numbers at this stage but there's one you should remember, at least for a little while: three. That's the number of games (out of 32) that Barcelona did not win in all competitions since Jan. 4 and the mess at the Anoeta, when Lionel Messi was benched and they lost to Real Sociedad.
Those three non-victories? A shock home defeat to Malaga, a battling draw against a marauding Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan and that wholly irrelevant 3-2 loss to Bayern, given the 3-0 first-leg thumping.
Since 2008, there have been better Barcelona teams in teams in the course of an entire campaign. This one will finish between 93 and 96 points; Guardiola, of course, went as high as 99 and won the Treble, while Tito Vilanova reached 100. But no Barcelona side -- maybe no side in recent history -- has been as dominant for a five-month stretch to close out a season.
And that's the scary part. Because there was a very obvious turning point (the "stomach ache," the storm of early January) and then a long, sustained tear which seemingly saw the team get better and better.
Luis Enrique's critics have long described him as someone who was too genuine for his own good, incapable of playing political games and true to himself to the point of self-harm. Certainly, his body of work at Roma and in the early months of his Barcelona tenure, the two jobs in which he was under relentless media scrutiny, lent credence to that assessment.
But we saw a different Luis Enrique in January. Not a diplomat, necessarily, but one less stubborn in knowing which battles to pick and which to let go. It's easy to think of Barcelona as a turnkey operation, a club so stacked with talent that you could put a doughnut in charge and you'd still win La Liga, but in fact, he had to overcome a whole range of challenges.
Enrique had to integrate Luis Suarez, who couldn't actually get on the pitch until October. He had to find the right balance in the front three, eventually restoring Messi to the wide role. It seems an obvious choice with hindsight, but it's not the easiest sell when he's been playing as a "false nine" and you're a relative no-name while he's the greatest player in the club's history.
He had the personality to ease Xavi into a part-time role while still keeping him motivated and on-side. He juggled two goalkeepers (Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen) all season long, as per club orders. And it may or may not be a coincidence, but Gerard Pique enjoyed his best campaign at the back in several years. Indeed, the whole defensive solidity of the club is something that went under the radar to some degree. Barcelona have conceded 19 Liga goals, with one game to go, which is a new club record.
The skeptics had reason to be skeptical, but Luis Enrique proved them wrong.
More broadly, it's critical to the club that he did. With the transfer ban in place this summer and presidential elections imminent, perceived failure this season could have cost Barca extremely dear.
Why did Man United stall on De Gea?
Louis van Gaal is either exceptionally and brutally honest or he has something up his sleeve. It's hard to recall a situation when a club looked so blase about losing one of their best players. After Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Arsenal (a disappointingly milquetoast affair for both sides), the manager was asked about David De Gea's future.
"You are asking things that I can't answer," he said. "He has to decide. We have [offered] him a fantastic contract. He's had a fantastic season I think, but I analyse his position and then I say he is Spanish, he is a Spanish international still behind [Iker] Casillas [the Real Madrid keeper], now a Spanish club is coming [for him], his girlfriend is Spanish, his father and mother come every week or two weeks to [visit], so it's very difficult."
In manager-speak, that's as close to a white flag as it gets. And sure, maybe United are plotting something and they'll come out and tell us that De Gea just signed a new five-year deal. But it certainly did not seem that way.
And so talk turns to a possible replacement (Petr Cech? Hugo Lloris?), or whether you can stick De Gea into some kind of mega-swap deal to bring Gareth Bale back to the Premier League and stuff like that.
Yet it's worth taking a step back and asking how the club managed to let it get to a situation in which De Gea has a year left on his contract, meaning United either let him go for nothing at the end of next season or deal him for a cut price in the summer. And, yes: when you have a year left it usually is a cut price, as evidenced by Toni Kroos (who is of a similar age) moving to Real Madrid last year for $34 million.
De Gea had a rocky start at Old Trafford but it became obvious early in his second campaign that he was a long-term solution. That was the time to extend the deal: summer 2013. If you have a blue-chipper, that's how you help maintain his value.
For whatever reason -- maybe they were too preoccupied with Sir Alex Ferguson's succession and, equally, Ed Woodward replacing David Gill -- that never happened. And by the time the club got around to it last summer, it was too late. By that point, De Gea's stock had risen further, it was clearer that Madrid would be preparing for life post-Casillas. He had no reason to put pen to paper, and United lost the leverage they once had.
You can't help feeling that United got played here. Given that Woodward spent most of the summer talking to Jorge Mendes over the Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria deals, you wonder whether he ever thought of broaching the De Gea subject, given that they all share the same agent.
When you're spending such enormous amounts of money for Falcao and Di Maria, you'd think you might feel entitled to use that leverage to get an edge on De Gea. "Sure, Jorge, we'll take Falcao and Di Maria and pay through the nose for both in wages, transfers and loan fees, but can we maybe extend David's deal by a year or two, just to give us some protection? So that if he does decide to go back to Spain he won't have us over a barrel and we'll get something closer to fair market value for him? Kinda like we did Cristiano Ronaldo back in the day?"
De Gea is 24. He's probably one of the top three keepers in the world. If he wants to go home, it's more than understandable. But it was United who made him the second-most expensive keeper in history and it was United who believed in the tall, skinny 20-year-old with 18 months' top-flight experience and no caps back in 2011.
Now, they'll be lucky to get back what they paid for him.
Happy season turns to tough summer for PSG
Paris Saint-Germain won their third straight Ligue 1 title over the weekend and nobody gets to gloat about it more than Laurent Blanc. There were times this season (and indeed, last year) when it looked as if the manager was on his own. Controversy, indiscipline, highly paid stars moaning to the big boss and club officials who wouldn't stick up for Blanc in public (nor quash all those Diego Simeone rumors) plagued him.
Blanc dealt with all of it just as he dealt with a rash of injuries. And he could actually end up leading PSG to a treble (a domestic one, but a treble nonetheless, if they beat Auxerre in the French Cup final on May 30).
This doesn't make Blanc some kind of managerial genius. PSG were so stacked compared to the rest of the league that they probably should have walked it. They would have walked it if certain players had been a bit more professional, if Blanc had handled certain situations a bit better and if he had received more backing from the guys who sign his paychecks.
Apart from individual highs (like the two legs against Chelsea in the Champions League), this did not seem like a team pulling in the same direction or one capable of turning into more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it often looked like a bunch of guys riding the Zlatan Ibrahimovic Express, fueled by the Swede's 30 goals in all competitions.
There were other bright spots, of course -- Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti continued to grow in terms of personality and stature -- but as often happens when the big Swede is in your team, it becomes all about him.
The challenge now is figuring out what to do next. Financial fair play remains an issue for the club. Ibrahimovic is 33 and could end up going elsewhere. Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi are being shopped around, Thiago Motta appears to be on his last legs (not for the first time, either).
Blanc did what was asked of him. He'll finish with two (or three) trophies, he knocked out Chelsea and only fell to all-conquering Barcelona. Whether it means he's the right man to lead PSG going forward and what that PSG will look like is one of the many issues Nasser Al-Khelaifi and his crew will have to sort out.
Ronaldo still has something to play for
It means close to nothing given events at the Vicente Calderon but Real Madrid rolled over Espanyol 4-1, and yes, Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a hat trick. He's a shoo-in to be Pichichi (top scorer) this season and it brings his seasonal total to 58, while his Liga tally stands at 45.
Real Madrid host Getafe on the final day of the season. Given that the opposition have nothing to play for, expect Ronaldo to shoot early and often and (probably) add to his total. He needs one more to match his Liga best, though in the back of his mind he'll probably be thinking of the record (50 goals, set by you-know-who, Lionel Messi) back in 2011-12.
To many, these may feel like empty numbers; not to Ronaldo. And while it's easy to criticise him for it (perhaps rightly, too), it's part of what makes him Cristiano.
Praise for Pioli and Lazio
Lazio boss Stefano Pioli is one of those coaches who gets more accolades from his colleagues than he does from the media. He's been through the Italian management churn over the past 12 years, only sticking around for more than a season on two occasions. Sometimes he's underachieved, while other times he's fallen victim to trigger-happy owners, still others he thought he could do better elsewhere.
The pairing of him and Claudio Lotito didn't seem like the most natural of fits in the summer, but Pioli has surpassed all expectations. He kept a lid on the controversy and hysteria that generally envelops clubs from the Italian capital and, more importantly, he has his team playing great football while leading Lazio to the Coppa Italia final and a huge, winner-take-all derby next weekend, with second place in Serie A at stake.
He overcame injury to his fancy, high-priced centre-forward, Filip Djordjevic, and an unsettled central defensive partnership. What he has done (brilliantly, in fact) is rejuvenate Miroslav Klose (one goal every 144 minutes isn't too shabby at age 36), get the best out of Antonio Candreva and turn Felipe Anderson into one of the most exciting wide players in Europe (feel free to call him a poor man's Neymar ... plenty do). All this with the aggressive, hard-running midfield that has been his hallmark for years.
Saturday's 1-0 victory over Sampdoria leaves Lazio a point behind their city rivals, with two games to go. But while Roma are limping towards this derby, Lazio are the ones in the ascendancy. Pioli may just want to stick around another season.
What should Manchester City do this summer?
Few clubs seem to be more feast-or-famine than Manchester City. When things get bumpy, Manuel Pellegrini needs to leave because he's too much of a nice guy, his 4-4-2 is obsolete, Yaya Toure is lazy and obsessed with birthday cakes, nobody can defend and Samir Nasri is horrendous.
Then they win five games in a row, beating Swansea 4-2 on Sunday, pretty much lock up second place and presto! Everything changes. Maybe it's worth keeping Pellegrini for another year. Maybe that 4-4-2 is fine as long as Sergio Aguero is fit and, besides, it's not really a 4-4-2 -- it's more of a 4-2-2-2.
And sure, Yaya is a bit unorthodox, but despite going away for the African Cup of Nations and despite a so-so campaign by his standards, he still got you 12 goals from midfield, which is nothing to sneeze at. And if Vincent Kompany is fit all year long, well, he's the best in the world, or thereabouts. As for Nasri ... well, no, he's still Nasri.
As ever, a bit of balance is called for. City need to figure out what they want to be, and the biggest decision is whether they think this squad can challenge next year. If so, they shouldn't overhaul it but rather make a couple of tweaks in key positions and have another go. But if they think they're woefully behind the curve, it's best to bite the bullet. Because blowing up this team in a year's time will be more expensive than doing so this summer.
Do Bayern have a serious problem?
How do you react when you've won the title by some margin yet your season's coming to an end with four defeats in your last five outings in all competitions? Or when, as a team, you've suffered as many league defeats in the past 15 days as you have in the previous 30 months?
It probably depends on how Pep Guardiola and his bosses view Bayern's 2-1 defeat away to relegation-threatened Freiburg on Saturday. Was it a freak result? Was it simply mental and physical fatigue following elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona? Or does it indicate some deeper malaise, one that won't be quickly fixed?
If it's the last one, you have to worry. As I see it, this was a game Bayern should have won. They dominated possession, created many more chances and were ultimately felled by a goal on the counter (by a former Bayern player, Nils Petersen, no less). If there's a mental dip at this stage, with nothing left to play for, it's understandable.
But not everyone agrees. And Wolfsburg sporting director Klaus Allofs fired a couple of choice darts at Guardiola and Bayern. "Previously, Bayern were the epitome of professionalism but we haven't seen this professionalism in the past few weeks," he said. "I've been very disappointed ... I can understand how some clubs are bitter over this."
It's a fair point. Freiburg needed the win more than Bayern, and they got it. You wonder how some of the other relegation-threatened clubs feel about this.
Benfica beat Porto at their own game
Concurrent draws for Benfica and Porto meant Jorge Jesus' men won their second straight Portuguese title on Sunday. It's the first time in 21 years that Benfica win back-to-back crowns which, given that this is Portugal's most successful (and best-supported) club is rather remarkable.
We know the reason. Porto have been the gold standard over the past two decades, reloading while losing talent year after year. But the advent of Jorge Jesus, and some canny moves in the transfer market, have helped redress the balance.
It's somewhat ephemeral. Like Porto, Benfica are heavily reliant on third-party ownership and there is no telling what will happen now that the ban is in effect (assuming it's actually enforced). But they played by the same rules as Porto, and for the past two seasons, there is no question who had the upper hand: Benfica won four trophies (with the Cup final against Maritimo yet to come) and reached the Europa League final. They played Porto's game and beat them at it.
And finally ... Bas Dost
No goals, but you still get your Bas Dost Watch. He didn't score against Borussia Dortmund at the weekend, meaning his goal drought stands at 98 minutes.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.