Zinedine Zidane said the league would be Real Madrid’s main objective this season, even ahead of the Champions League through which their legend was forged, and now he and his side have delivered.
With a game to spare, a comfortable victory over Villarreal, secured by two goals from Karim Benzema, the second a retaken penalty after he and Sergio Ramos had made a mess of the first, left them out of reach at the top of the table. That this is only their third in 12 years says something about its significance and how Zidane, winner of three consecutive Champions Leagues, fought to change the culture of the club and break Barcelona’s domestic dominance.
It didn’t matter it was finally clinched at the club’s Valdebebas training ground in front of fewer than 300 people rather than the Santiago Bernabéu, or that fans had been asked not to celebrate at the statue of Cibeles in the centre of the city. It didn’t even matter the second goal arrived via a pretty silly route, Ramos trying to pass a second-half penalty to Benzema to score only for his teammate to time the run all wrong. This was the truest test of a team, Zidane kept insisting, a source of special satisfaction.
“The Champions League is the Champions League but La Liga makes me happier, because La Liga is what it’s all about,” the Frenchman told Movistar after the final whistle. “This is a tremendous feeling because what these players have done is incredible. I am lost for words because I am too emotional.”
This is Real’s second league title in four years with the Frenchman, a success won by the old guard and built on solidity and organisation. Since the return to action post-pandemic, certainly. In 10 games since football restarted Real have won all 10, the compressed mini-league seeming to suit them, focus sharpening, the target more tangible than ever. They have never even trailed and this never really felt in any doubt. Villarreal did not muster a shot until they scored; up to the final 15 minutes, when they threatened to deny Real the victory if not the title, they had barely approached it.
What tension and drama there was on this, the penultimate day, came elsewhere. With every game bar one being played at the same time, scores came in from around Spain. Some of them were huge, fates intwined – especially at the bottom. For Real at the top, who knew their destiny was in their own hands, the biggest came from 600km away, and even that was always likely to be largely irrelevant. Eighteen minutes in, Osasuna had taken the lead against Barcelona. If it stayed like that, Zidane’s team could lose and still win the league.
Not that they had any intention of that and nor did they need any help, even if there was something appropriate in the prospect of Barcelona’s last act to be abdication and defeat. By then five points clear thanks to the scoreline from the Camp Nou, Real had taken control at Valdebebas. Traffic headed in only one direction and, if clear chances were few, Benzema had already sidefooted a volley wide and Luka Modric drew a sharp save from Sergio Asenjo from 20 yards.
Both players had also produced a lovely touch each and they would combine to give Real the lead just before the first-half drinks break. Sofian Chakla gave the ball away, Casemiro stepped in, found Modric and the Croat slipped it into the path of Benzema. His shot, hard and low, went through Asenjo’s legs.
How fitting it was that Benzema opened the scoring yet again, the season’s outstanding performer moving on to 20 league goals, across 17 different games. A 21st followed, his teammates collaborating in taking him closer to Lionel Messi in the top scorer charts in a second half that had begun with Dani Carvajal cutting inside to draw a sharp save from Asenjo. Not long after that Messi scored to put Barcelona level at the Camp Nou but it didn’t matter.
Sergio Ramos set off on a run from deep, eventually tumbling on the edge of the area. Replays suggested there might not even have been any contact from Chakla but the referee gave Real their 11th penalty of the season and the VAR did not demand otherwise.
Ramos ran up but instead of shooting he rolled the ball under his studs for Benzema to come and finish. His teammate was a long way inside the area when he scored. Fortunately for him, behind him an opponent was encroaching too. Real got another chance; this time Benzema took it and scored.
Vicente Iborra headed home to make it 2-1 and then suddenly there was a series of shots, ever closer. Courtois saved from Ontiveros and Iborra could barely believe it when his shot slipped wide in the 93rd minute.
Marcos Asensio thought he had got a third soon after but, while he was denied the goal, Zidane and his players were not to be denied the title. Unbeaten at either of Real’s homes this season, he has his title.