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Saturday afternoon was the perfect opportunity for FC Barcelona to enjoy a well-deserved rest stop. Nearing the end of a pleasant ten-month journey and just six days after one its biggest highlights, the time had come to pull off the highway, enjoy the scenery and — with the end of the road on the horizon and as visible as ever — refuel for the final two stops.
It was a day for contentment, delight, and elation, an occasion to celebrate the 2014/15 La Liga title. But it was also a moment for goodbyes, the ones that nobody likes to make, the time to bid a final farewell to Xavi Hernández, one of the perennial fixtures of this barnstorming band of first-class footballers, who recently told his buddies that this year’s trip would be his last.
Stars and substitutes
Having mathematically clinched the La Liga title last weekend, FC Barcelona's match against Deportivo on Saturday became a de-facto day off. Accordingly, Barça’s first-year head coach Luis Enrique ran out a line up that combined firepower with unfamiliar faces. Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr were joined by Thomas Vermaelen — making his first official appearance after months of rehab from an injury — and third-string goalkeeper Jordi Masip, also making his debut, in the starting eleven.
Nevertheless, it was another player on whom the spotlight shone brightest. For Xavi, it was his day. Barça’s midfield legend, oftentimes referred to as “the brain” had decided to call it quits earlier in the week so he could leave Barça on top and play out the twilight of his career in another league, on another continent. Xavi, who had been a reserve player for almost the whole season, was named a starter in his final league match wearing the blaugrana shirt. It was a fitting tribute to a man who embodied Barça from head to toe.
Before kick-off, the packed house at Camp Nou not only cheered Xavi, they also held up a 360-degree blue and pomegranate mosaic with the Catalan word “campions” featured prominently in maize yellow at the north and south ends. A giant white canvas honouring the illustrious Xavi was unfurled opposite the grandstand.
Barça bring the heat
The match kicked off at half past six and, only five ticks in, Messi — seriously, who else? — opened the scoring. The Argentinian artist not only finished the play, he also started it, firing up a counterattack with a long outlet pass to defender Jérémy Mathieu, who was streaking down the left wing. The Frenchman had to turn on the jets to catch up with the ball, and when he did he fired at the goal, with Deportivo goalkeeper Fabricio handing it away but giving up a long rebound. Rafinha corralled it on the opposite side, deked a defender, and carried towards the touchline, chipping a cross into the six-yard box, where Messi headed home for the early lead.
Deportivo, who had their backs against the wall and needed a win or draw to guarantee themselves a spot in the first division next season, were summarily deprived of possession throughout the first half, the Catalans hogging the ball at close to an eighty per cent clip.
Messi was later flagged offside on a would-be second goal. Adriano, Neymar, and Vermaelen all enjoyed chances of their own, while Xavi almost brought down the house right before the break when his shot was deflected in front and sailed just off-target.
Messi struck again in the 60th minute, when Neymar went in all alone and selflessly laid off to his line mate who tapped in for a 2–0 lead. It was Messi’s second of the day and his 43rd league goal of the season.
Depor provide drama
Lucas Pérez pulled one back for Depor on 66 minutes when he was fed by Borges out beyond the penalty spot, spun, and fired a pinpoint shot into the upper left corner. Masip leapt in vain but had no chance to make the save.
Then, nearly ten minutes later, Diogo Salomão drew Deportivo level at 2–2 by firing home from the same spot as Lucas following a free kick that had rebounded off Barça’s defensive wall. The visitors were now poised for a priceless point at Camp Nou and a one-way ticket out of the relegation zone.
The 85th minute brought the loudest roar of the day, and perhaps the season, from the 93,743 fans on hand when Luis Enrique replaced Xavi with Andrés Iniesta, and long-time Camp Nou public address announcer Manel Vich bellowed Xavi's name for one last time in a league encounter.
The final whistle came soon after with no change to the score and was immediately followed by thundering applause, blasts of confetti and a snapshot for posterity — Xavi Hernández, the diminutive midfielder who made it oh so big at Barça, gripped the oversized, La Liga championship trophy and held it aloft. The crowd exploded.
Xavi grabbed the microphone and, wiping away the tears, opened himself up to the only fans he has ever known: "Thank you for everything. You have made me the happiest man in the world."
Two finals left
With the 2014/15 La Liga etched into stone, champions FC Barcelona have just two games remaining. They'll first face Athletic Club Bilbao in the Spanish Cup Final on 30 May at Camp Nou. Then, a week later, the Catalans travel to Berlin, Germany where they'll face their last test of the season in the UEFA Champions League Final versus Juventus on 6 June. If Barça can take home both titles, they'll become the first European club in history to win the treble twice. They are already the only Spanish club to have done it, a feat they achieved in the 2008/09 season.
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