Eto'o heralds new ascendancy for Barcelona

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The Independent Online

Barcelona ended their six-year trophy drought on Saturday when they claimed their 17th league championship thanks to a 1-1 draw away to relegation-threatened Levante while their arch rivals, Real Madrid, were held to a 2-2 draw in an action-packed match against Seville.

Barcelona ended their six-year trophy drought on Saturday when they claimed their 17th league championship thanks to a 1-1 draw away to relegation-threatened Levante while their arch rivals, Real Madrid, were held to a 2-2 draw in an action-packed match against Seville.

The result gave the Catalans an unassailable six-point lead at the top of the table with two games left to play and even if they lose their remaining two games of the season they cannot be overtaken by Real because of their better head-to-head record.

Barça had to battle every inch of the way for their triumph, though, as Levante, fighting to preserve their Primera Liga status, took a deserved lead late in the first half when their former Real Madrid midfielder Alberto Rivera guided a shot past Victor Valdes from the edge of the area after a lightning counter-attack.

Suffocated by their opponents in midfield, Barça looked edgy and nervous but eventually recovered their calm on the hour when their leading goalscorer, Samuel Eto'o, nodded in at the far post after Rafael Marquez had got his head to a Xavi corner. From then on it was one big party as Barça played out the final half hour knowing that they were on their way to their first league title since 1999.

"I'm delighted, immensely," said Frank Rijkaard, the Dutchman who was experiencing his first success as a club coach. "I said from the start that we'd have to fight hard for the league title and we had to suffer to earn this draw but we did it in the end.

"My first thought is for the fans who have given us such fantastic support throughout the year," he added. "I'm delighted for the players, too, who have won a great battle this season."

Eto'o, who took his season's tally to 25 goals with his well-taken header, said that the triumph was the beginning of a new era for the Catalan club.

"This was what I had always dreamed of - scoring a goal and winning the title at the same time," said the African player of the year. "We are a young and united team and are capable of staying at the top - that has got to be our aim now."

While thousands of ecstatic Barcelona fans poured on to the streets of the city to celebrate their success, Real Madrid supporters were left to reflect that their team had ended the season empty-handed for a second year in succession, the first time this has happened in 13 years.

A classy Seville side ran Real ragged in the earlier game at the Sanchez Pizjuan and halted their opponents' seven-match winning streak when they drew 2-2 thanks to a late goal from the Brazilian striker Julio Baptista.

Seville, looking for a win that would cement their position in the Champions' League berths, started fast and set a breathless pace as they hounded Real off the ball and monopolised the early possession.

The Andalucians took the lead when young full-back Sergio Ramos cracked a 30-metre rocket shot past the Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the 20th minute. But Real were thrown a lifeline just before the break when the Seville centre-back Javi Navarro sent a diving header into his own net as he tried to cut out a Roberto Carlos cross when he came under pressure from Michael Owen.

Real lifted their game in the second period and went 2-1 up when Zinedine Zidane scored with a stunning 20-yard strike in the 74th minute. But it only sparked Seville into a furious reaction and the home side snatched a deserved equaliser when Baptista scored with a powerful header two minutes from time. Real's disappointment was compounded when the centre-back Ivan Helguera was sent off in injury time for a dangerous challenge from behind on the striker Dario Silva.

"It was really frustrating because we made a huge effort to try and win the game," Owen said. "But we have been trailing Barça for much of the season and even though we have put together two goods runs of results Barcelona haven't slipped up and it has been very difficult for us to get close to them."

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