Tonight’s result leaves Barça seven points clear at the summit ahead of their trip to Atletico Madrid tomorrow, with Jose Mourinho’s side now only having two league games left this season.
It is the first trophy Barça have won under Vilanova, having lost to Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa at the start of the season and suffered semi-final defeats in the UEFA Champions League and Copa del Rey to Bayern Munich and Madrid, respectively.
Vilanova, who this week returned to New York for follow-up tests having spent two months in America earlier this year undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment for cancer, was promoted from assistant to head coach following Pep Guardiola’s departure last summer.
It was win or bust for Madrid with only a victory sufficient to keep the title race alive for 24 hours at least. Given Mourinho’s side came into the match with nine wins and a draw in their last ten games, anything other than three points for Real seemed unlikely.
However, they were disjointed and off the pace in the first half which was dominated by Espanyol, who were unfortunate to only have a one-goal lead courtesy of Christian Stuani’s 23rd-minute strike. Hector Moreno incorrectly had a goal disallowed as Real appeared to have one eye on next Friday’s Copa del Rey final against Atletico Madrid.
However, the introduction of Cristiano Ronaldo was followed moments later by Gonzalo Higuain’s 58th-minute equaliser. Espanyol were reduced to ten men in injury-time when Victor Sanchez was given his second yellow card after following through on Higuain but Ronaldo sent the resulting free-kick high and wide. It was a much-improved second-half performance from Madrid but it was not enough and Barcelona wrested back the title without even playing.
All of today’s other games had implications at the other end of the table.
Athletic Bilbao took a giant step towards sealing their La Liga status after overcoming nine-man Real Mallorca 2-1 at San Mames. Aritz Aduriz gave the hosts an early lead but then missed a penalty after Andreu Fontas was sent off on 25 minutes.
Fernando Llorente doubled the advantage late in the second half but Mallorca forward Giovani Dos Santos made for an exciting finish by netting a superb goal two minutes later. However, Mallorca’s hopes of snatching a late equaliser were struck a blow in injury time when Ximo Navarro was also sent off for a second booking and Athletic were able to hold on.
Alejandro Arribas struck a second-half winner to earn Osasuna a potentially priceless 1-0 victory in their fight to avoid the drop. Arribas netted 16 minutes from time as Osasuna ended a five-match winless streak with a deserved triumph that moves them four points above third-bottom Deportivo La Coruna, who lost 1-0 at Real Valladolid. Valladolid guaranteed survival for another season thanks to Javi Guerra’s goal three minutes into the second half, taking his team onto 43 points, 11 ahead of the Galicians.