The towels were taped to the wall. It was time. The lid came off – off the champagne bottles and off the pizza boxes. Off all of the tension, too. This moment had been coming for a while; now at last it was actually here. It was 11 days since Real Madrid defeated Barcelona in the clásico, virtually securing the title; two months since the Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, first announced: "We won't win this league"; four months since Madrid last lost in the league; and 19 matches since they were last off the top of the table. It was also two years since José Mourinho's work at Internazionale was done, his collection completed at the Santiago Bernabéu, releasing him to come to La Liga, and four years since Bernd Schuster's strangely forgotten Real Madrid team won the league.
One-thousand-four-hundred-and-sixty-one days later, 1,461 days since Gonzalo Higuaín got the decisive goal in Pamplona to take the 2007-08 title and Arjen Robben, the other scorer, approached the microphone beaming to recall his vital header with an incredulous "fucking hell … oops, excuse my language", Madrid are league champions again.
There were still a few minutes left when Cristiano Ronaldo turned to the fans and showed them the club's badge on his chest before pointing at the LFP logo on his sleeve. Real Madrid: the league. When the final whistle blew in Bilbao, Mourinho put seven fingers in the air; it was his seventh league title as a coach. Ronaldo and Athletic's Javi Martínez confronted each other. Mourinho was thrown up into the air and Iker Casillas threw his gloves into the crowd. Soon, Pepe and Sergio Ramos were doing the same with their shirts. Down in the dressing room, Esteban Granero and Xabi Alonso put up two and three fingers respectively. Facing the camera, they'd got it the wrong way round but you got the point: it was Madrid's 32nd title.
Just another league, then? No. This was a title of particular significance for many of them. For Mourinho, it was his seventh title across four different countries. It is not the unique record it is often presumed to be – Ernst Happel and Giovanni Trapattoni both have four, while Tomislav Ivic has won six different titles – but it may well be the most impressive managerial record there has been. No one has won the league in England, Italy and Spain before and on Wednesday night Mourinho's spokesman was parading T-shirts with four flags on: the union flag plus flags from Portugal, Spain and Italy. For Ronaldo, there was a feeling of vindication about it too: this season he has been staggeringly good, obliterating any lingering suspicion that he does not appear in the big games. His performance against Atlético would have been barely believable, except that he produced similar displays almost every week. Of his 44 goals, half have come on the road: he scored in Malaga, Valencia, Seville, Villarreal, Pamplona, Bilbao and Barcelona. Before he missed the penalty against Bayern, he'd already scored twice.
For Casillas, it was a fifth league title in the stadium where he made his debut in 1999, and after a season that has been especially tense for him – so often in the middle of the storm during a campaign when the stress, suspicion and conflict has been an inescapable and uncomfortable reality. For Sergio Ramos, it completed a season where, from the centre of the defence, he has become a leader. "I am," he said, "looking forward to lifting up the cup … without dropping it this time." For Ozil, nicknamed Besugo (a type of fish) and Madrid's most consistent creative force, it was his first league title. For Xabi Alonso too: at 30.
For Gonzalo Higuaín, meanwhile, it looks likely to be his last – at Madrid anyway. The man who was once ironically nicknamed "Higualín" or Samey because he was just like Brazilian Ronaldo; who scored a goal only to hear the stadium announcer – at the Santiago Bernabéu – say "and the scorer, at last, is Higuaín!"; who listened as they said he never scored important goals, even though he did; and who encountered campaigns against him, campaigns whose origins felt worryingly close to home, has tired of swimming against the tide. He also now has a brilliant striker ahead of him – few players are so technically accomplished, so cool or so consistently take the right decision as Karim Benzema. If he goes, Higuaín goes with the goal that pathed the way on the title winning night – again – and with the best goals-per-game ratio in La Liga. He has 22. Although it doesn't work like this, to put that in context: if he had taken and scored all Madrid's penalties instead of Ronaldo, he would be the team's top scorer on 34.
This success is about more than individuals. This is a huge title for Madrid – one they needed – one they chased with everything they had; spending €500m and completely changing the model had to bring results. The price paid has been high; now it feels worth it. The current president had not won the league since 2003 – the 2007 and 2008 successes came during his two-year spell away from the club – and it ended Barcelona's three-year domestic hegemony. The tension has become greater than ever before; the desperation, the need. This season might not have been absolutely everything Madrid wanted – the great obsession was the 10th European Cup and the impact of losing to Bayern was brutal – and there is no guarantee that it has actually brought Barcelona's era to an end, but it was celebrated with a certain release, an edginess, a sense of vindication as well as joy.
Mourinho was signed precisely to challenge Barcelona. In Ferguson speak: to knock them off their fucking perch. Winning the clásico was not just important because of the points it earned but the point it proved. Madrid went to Barcelona and won. That fact gave their title even greater legitimacy.
It was also a familiar story. When the moment came in Bilbao, they won the league the way that they had won the league: with speed and power, a depth of talent and variety, an insatiable desire, that was irresistible. Pep Guardiola darkly insinuated that there were other explanations, saying: "Madrid are worthy winners but lots of things have happened this season that have been hidden by our silence." But Madrid did what they have done most of the season: they blew another team away. And away is the word. They went to Mestalla and scored three. They went to the Calderón and scored four. They went to Pamplona and scored five. They went to the Sánchez Pizjuán and scored six. Then they went to San Mamés and scored three.
As the season entered the decisive weeks, and Barcelona's pursuit intensified, Madrid's run-in looked tough, yet visits to Athletic, Osasuna, Atlético and Barcelona all ended in victory. They won at the home of every league title winner in Spanish football history, except Deportivo de La Coruña, who are currently in the Second Division (but not for long). They became the first team ever to win the league at The Cathedral.
Madrid have won more away games than anyone else, ever: 15 of 18 so far. There are two matches left. Win one more and it will be the highest ever number of victories in a season. Win two more, and they will reach 100 points – a league record. It would not be their only record: they have scored 115 goals, overtaking the 107 scored by John Toshack's Madrid in 1989-90. They scored four against Athletic, Atlético (twice), Espanyol and Málaga; five against Real Sociedad, Espanyol, and Granada; six against Zaragoza, Rayo and Sevilla; and seven against Zaragoza. They have three players on 20 goals or more, three of Spain's top five goalscorers: Ronaldo (44), Higuaín (22) and Benzema (20). On Wednesday night Barcelona also went past 107; meanwhile, Messi surpassed Gerd Müller's record from 1972-73, scoring 68 in a season, 46 of them in the league.
Some of the reasons for Madrid's astonishing goalscoring record have been examined here before, while Mourinho's work has been analysed here. But that figure from Barcelona is another reason why Madrid have racked up such astonishing stats: because they can but also because they have had to.
These two teams have pushed each other on, increasing the tension and increasing the obligation, obliterating the rest of the league. Madrid learned the lesson from last year, when draws cost them more than defeats did. Yes, there have been moments when their results have been better than their performances, when details have gone their way, but this year teams have mostly been bludgeoned into submission pitilessly, relentlessly: the rest of the league simply can't compete; Madrid and Barcelona must, every single week. "I have won seven titles but this is the hardest of the lot," Mourinho said, "94 points are madness."
Getafe 1-1 Racing, Granada 2-1 Espanyol, Sporting 2-3 Villarreal, Atlético 1-1 Real Sociedad, Barcelona 4-1 Málaga, Sevilla 1-2 Betis, Mallorca 1-0 Rayo, Zaragoza 1-0 Levante, Athletic 0-3 Real Madrid, Valencia 4-0 Osasuna
• Another hat-trick, another record for Leo Messi. He is splashed across the front of the Catalan dailies on Thursday morning, having overtaken Gerd Müller's single-season European goalscoring record with 68. He has a quite ludicrous 46 in the league – which is likely to keep Madrid and Barcelona's final two games alive.
• Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! That's how Zaragoza's Romareda stadium ended on Wednesday night. A 1-0 win over Levante, plus Rayo Vallecano's 1-0 loss to Mallorca means that they still have half a chance of achieving the greatest escape since ... well, since Sylvester Stallone saved that penalty.
• Adiós, Sporting. Their defeat to Villarreal means that barring a bizarre miracle, they will be back in the second division next season. Captain Lora ended on the turf and in tears. Meanwhile, it was kicking off on the touchline where Villarreal goalkeeper César seemed to be trying to perform a hakka in front of the sporting fans and bottles, and lighters came down.
• Over the wall? Round the wall? Through the wall? Not for Beñat. He got the winner in the Seville derby by waiting for the wall to jump and going under it. Class.
• Trust mad Tomás Roncero of AS to be the most hat-stand of them all on Thursday morning. "My son slept safely last night: he rang me and said: Papi, Madrid are champions, just like you told me. Little one, welcome to the wonder that is Madrid. Life is white!" he wrote before whipping out his calculator, and cutting up the calendar to suit, rewriting recent history. "In this period in which Barcelona have been considered the best in history, the Culés have celebrated three league titles since [the entirely randomly chosen date of] 2007, while Madrid have celebrated ... three!" he wrote. "And anyway Guardiola has won 13 of 23 not 13 of 18; you have to include the titles he did not compete for because of not winning the Champions League."