They squeezed on to the balcony carrying the trophy and held it in the air, €20,000 worth of silver glistening. Down below, held back by a phalanx of policemen, a crowd cheered and someone pressed play. With crushing inevitability, We Are The Champions boomed out. The microphone went round, words of gratitude, cheesy jokes, the promise to do it again. The left-back couldn't stop giggling. The manager pushed his assistant centre stage. And the top scorer hid behind a flag. Then they were off again. Back on the bus, from the council to the cathedral for another offering. Priests and politicians, president, players and their prize. Behind them was a huge mural, giant letters proclaiming: "Congratulations champions! Real Madrid."

Yes, Real Madrid.

Two teams celebrated yesterday but only one team really wanted to. Real Madrid chose 12 May 2011 to formally commemorate their Copa del Rey success. The trophy they had already paraded on the night, Sergio Ramos brilliantly dropping it under the wheels of the bus, got another outing – three long weeks after it was actually won. Conveniently, they did so in the buildup to the Madrid elections, allowing the Partido Popular's Alberto Ruiz Gallardón and Esperanza Aguirre another perfect photo opportunity. Like Aguirre needs one. Even more conveniently, they did so on the day that FC Barcelona did what everyone expected Barcelona to do: wrap up the league title with two games to spare.

And so it was that this morning's Marca led on "the day of the champions", Madrid taking pride of place alongside Barcelona. So it was that AS gave the first five pages to Real Madrid's celebrations – on the day that Barcelona won their 21st league title, their third in a row, their fifth in seven years. Barcelona's fans spilled down the Ramblas, but it is the Puerta del Sol spread across the photos. It would have been an act of genius had it not been so tragically transparent. If Madrid planned to bump Barcelona off the covers, they failed: even Marca and AS, catering to a largely Madridista readership and unashamedly biased, refused to ignore Barcelona. The latter felt a twinge of discomfort, describing it as a diversionary tactic, cynically sought.

Far from eclipsing Barcelona's success, the decision ended up taking the gloss off Madrid's. And, make no mistake, winning a first Copa del Rey in 18 years – against Barcelona to boot – and picking up a first trophy in three years is a big success, a warning and a stepping stone towards something greater. As is a Champions League semi-final after six successive seasons of not getting beyond a single knockout tie. But by pitching it directly against Barcelona's league title (and, implicitly, the forthcoming Champions League final), Madrid lost. Even Sergio Ramos noted that "this cup doesn't taste like much". The night before Gonzalo Higuaín described it with a sad, irritable sigh as a paripé. And however much they tried to claim it has a different meaning in Argentina, he was right: a paripé is a hollow show, an act.

It felt wrong. Madrid's players did not much fancy a party yesterday (and not just because there are those among their ranks who are not Catholic and not PP supporters). Barcelona's players, on the other hand, did. For them, it felt right. There were discussions about postponing any celebrations because there is still a Champions League final to come, but the players and technical staff insisted on marking this league title in style. "Now it's time to eat a lot, sing a lot, dance a lot and laugh a lot and celebrate a lot," as Pep Guardiola said last night. They did not parade the cup – after all, that would involve the LFP being half-organised – but they did celebrate on the pitch at the Ciutat de Valencia, where they drew 1-1 with Levante. They did celebrate on the plane back to Barcelona. Today there will be an open-topped bus tour round the city. And on Saturday they will present the trophy at the Camp Nou.

"This has been a hard title," Guardiola said, saying it all. Because they have led the league since week 13, because the European Cup final is still to come, it would have been easy to act as if this league title is nothing to get excited about. Because Barcelona cannot now reach 100 points and are unlikely to get 100 goals, it almost feels like a disappointment. Because Ronaldo will beat Messi to the Pichichi, it is as if they have lost something. They have been so extraordinary so often that it has almost become routine to win the league, no big deal.

But it is a big deal – and that is the point Barça have consistently tried to make. Although they have wrapped the title up with two games to spare, although they effectively won it with the 1-1 draw in the clásico, although their play has not been sparkling in the second half of the season, and although Madrid have six points fewer than they had at the same stage last year, Barcelona believe this has been the toughest league they have had to win since Guardiola took over in 2008. One that should be celebrated properly.

Barcelona came into this campaign off the back of a World Cup with little time for a proper pre-season, fearful that the collapse would come after South Africa, as it did after USA 94 and Germany 2006. They started it too with the bitterness and controversy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's transfer still unresolved and with the doubts over David Villa's adaptation (doubts which still exist). They had failed to sign Cesc Fábregas. Their squad is short, sometimes stretched to breaking point – they have been fortunate not to suffer significant injuries to Alves, Messi, Xavi or Piqué, while Iniesta has had the most injury-free season of his career – and they have had players out of position. Others have played more than they should.

Eric Abidal suffered a tumour on his liver. Guardiola, who has often felt unsupported, has been out with a slipped disc. An Italian TV channel caught him saying that this season would be his last. Sandro Rosell, the president, hardly helped when he predicted a 5-0 win in the Copa del Rey "just to keep up the trend". And they have been up against a team that, on occasions, has been brilliant – the most expensive side in history. Up against José Mourinho, too: Guardiola's shock "puto amo" response showed that he had got under their skin. Often nasty, intense and deeply unpleasant, the clásico series was, in Guardiola's words, "19 incredibly tough days". On the night before the semi-final second leg, the coach's most telling comment came when he said simply: "it's nearly over."

Then there's the constant chipping away at their credibility, wild accusations thrown at them – from fixture lists to opponents throwing matches, from refereeing conspiracies to the far more pernicious, unfounded, accusation of drug use.

But it is not just about the toil of this season. It is also about its symbolism. Barcelona won the league with a draw at the Ciutat de Valencia, just as they did in 2005 when the run of five league titles in seven years began – and there is a degree of continuity between this team and that one, coached by Frank Rijkaard. They travel to Wembley, where the Dream Team – the model that they consciously seek to emulate – won their only European Cup. "This team can never compete with the Dream Team," Guardiola said, "They started this".

Only they can.

The season started brilliantly: the 5-0 against Real Madrid may be the finest individual performance La Liga has seen – the one that most drew comparisons with the Dream Team. Other wonderful displays followed. In the second half of the season, they have lacked brilliance and changes will need to be made for next year. Villa's form has dipped. Pedro's too. They don't have a player like Ronaldinho or Deco and they certainly don't have one like Samuel Eto'o. Or even Thierry Henry. Leo Messi's centrality – ridiculous though it sounds after a season in which he has scored 34 goals and provided 19 assists – occasionally looks like a problem; he has a tendency to come too deep and become too involved. The number of goals has dropped. They have just one more than Real Madrid. When they won the league in 2008-09, they scored 105. Last year they got 98. This year, they are on 92 and, title wrapped up, could conceivably get no more.

But Barcelona have conceded just 20 all season. Barcelona's style is often misunderstood, heavily criticised when it does not produce lots of goals, but that is to misunderstand it. Some teams defend with position, Barcelona defend with possession. Tiki-taka is not just offensive. Teams are praised for stopping Barcelona scoring; Barcelona are never praised for stopping the opposition scoring. Possession is attacked as pointless by those that fail to realise that attacking is not the only point to possession. If Barcelona have lacked the sparkle, the ability to control games has remained.

They have been up against teams that have simply tried to stop them playing too; the accusation levelled at them is that they cannot break those that sit deep and wait but that is difficult for anyone. Madrid failed to score against Mallorca, Sporting, Levante, Osasuna and Deportivo. Mourinho's approach over the two Champions League matches has provoked criticism of both sides but it is, in a sense, the greatest compliment you pay Barcelona.

The sheen may have gone – and at times Barcelona's acting in Europe was truly unedifying – but this remains a brilliant team. For all the talk of style, which is so central to Barcelona's self-identity – sometimes sanctimoniously so, and Rosell couldn't resist calling last night a "victory for football" – in the final analysis, it has been hugely successful.

This is Barcelona's third successive Spanish league title. Only four coaches have achieved this before: Helenio Herrera, Miguel Muñoz, Enrique Fernández and Johan Cruyff. Cruyff's Dream Team is the only Barcelona side among them, having won four in a row. Yet the Dream Team were unbelievably lucky. In three of their four titles they needed their rivals to blow it on their behalf on the final day. Twice Madrid lost in Tenerife, once losing 3-2 having been 2-0 up, and Miroslav Djukic missed the 89th-minute penalty that would have given Deportivo de la Coruña the title in 1994. Guardiola's Barcelona side won the 2008-09 title by nine points, won the 2009-10 title by three points, racking up an incredible 99 points, and have won this title with two games to spare. In each of the last three seasons they have been top for 28, 30 and 24 weeks respectively. They have won it well.

In the three years since Guardiola took over, Barcelona have won three league titles, one Copa del Rey and one European Cup. They completed a unique treble, then added the European and Spanish Super Cups and the World Club Cup. They have reached a Copa del Rey and European Cup semi-final and a Copa del Rey final. They still have another European Cup final to come – against a Manchester United team whose record is astonishing too. Whatever happens next, whatever happens at Wembley, whatever happens next year, or the year after that, it is an extraordinary feat. Pep Guardiola claimed that his Barcelona are not at the same level as the Dream Team. He is right: they are better.

And that is something to celebrate.

Week 36 results and talking points

• It could just be the best assist ever. Camuñas chased a long ball up the left wing, cut inside, got punched full in the face, wobbled momentarily, lifted his hand towards his head, carried on into the area, blood streaming from just below the eye, provided a wonderful assist and turned to celebrate with the fans, pointing at his face, before trotting back to the centre circle, shrugging off attention and then, feeling a little giddy, hitting the turf. It was the 89th minute and Osasuna had come back from 2-0 down to beat Sevilla 3-2 with goals in the 87th and 89th minutes, dragging themselves five points clear of the relegation zone. "See this?" Camuñas said after the game, pointing at his face as everyone went bonkers, "this represents this club". "Look, look, look!" he said, pointing at the fans, "this is what Osasuna are all about." And that is why Osasuna will survive.

• Well, that's why they should survive, anyway. With two games to go, Almería and Hércules are now down. Nine teams could in theory still join them – everyone from 10th down. But the likelihood is that it will be one from Zaragoza [39 points], Getafe [40], or Deportivo [42]. That said, the way the games are set up (this weekend Depor face Barcelona, Real Sociedad go to Sevilla, and Zaragoza play Espanyol), there's still a decent chance of Real Sociedad [44] finding themselves playing for their lives on the final day, against Getafe at Anoeta. First up, Getafe-Osasuna on Sunday night.

• The Beast does it again.

• Speaking of beasts, there were three more for Ronaldo against Getafe. He now has a barely plausible 36 goals in 32 league games (or 37 goals, if you read Marca, which you really shouldn't – especially as this column does it for you so you don't have to). That's 62 in 61 matches in all competitions. And 82 in 86 games for Madrid. Silly.

• And Quique Sánchez Flores and Diego Forlán almost came to blows after Atlético were beaten by Racing Santander. The end is nigh for both men at the Calderón. And in Forlán's case it's a sad end to a brilliant spell at the club. By the way, Mister Ali did turn up this time, as Racing moved into ninth and safety.

Results: Deportivo 2-1 Athletic, Málaga 2-0 Sporting, Racing 2-1 Atlético, Real Madrid 4-0 Getafe, Real Sociedad 2-1 Zaragoza, Levante 1-1 Barcelona, Almería 0-0 Villarreal, Espanyol 2-2 Valencia, Hércules 2-2 Mallorca, Osasuna 3-2 Sevilla