Guardiola and his successor Tito Vilanova look on during Barcelona's 4-1 victory over Málaga.
Wednesday I witnessed (through my computer's little screen) a beautiful scene at the Camp Nou. There was Messi notching a hattrick in stylish, free-flowing fashion, breaking the all-time European scoring record. The fans raising their voices to chant Guardiola's name, their beloved técnico raising his arms in acknowledgement. Carles Puyol being subbed for the young canterano Bartra, and passing his captain's armband to an in-form Iniesta with a kiss. Barcelona resuming possession, looking more imperious than ever.
Never had I felt so proud of this team. Having endured their darkest week since 2008, FC Barcelona looked as good as new. They've surrendered their Champions League title and their league title, they've accepted the departure of their leader, and they're ready to move on. There's a Copa del Rey to win, and then there's a league to take back from Madrid, a Champions League title to fight for all over again, and a new chance to conquer the world of football.
A few minutes later, Don Andrés was pulled for the recently-recovered Ibrahim Afellay, and the captain's armband was passed again, this time to Leo Messi, who donned the catalán flag for the first time in his Barcelona career. The greatest goal-scorer in the history of Europe and Spain then scurried off to pressure the keeper for the remainder of his 90 minutes.
This show of cohesiveness, togetherness, and positivity is far from commonplace. Tough losses at the end of a season tend to breed blame, divide locker-rooms, and suck the air out of remaining competitions. But not at FC Barcelona. There is too much respect for the club and the men who lead it. There is honor to be won and lost at every match—whether the league title is out of reach or not—and there’s a chain of command committed to defending this honor: Guardiola, Vilanova, Puyol, Valdes, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi.
The man at the top is departing, but those below him are already stepping forward. Tito Vilanova has a great chance to succeed because he has the support of the club captains. There are some questions about Piqué’s commitment and Dani Alves’ contentment, but otherwise the club is incredibly sound. Besides a couple of summer additions, next year’s starting XI can already be predicted with great certainty.
Consecutive victories of 7-0 and 4-1 seem good evidence that Barcelona is still sharp, and the importance of closing out a season in such fashion cannot be underestimated. Not only is pride and honor on the line, and there's more to these final La Liga matches than Messi's Pichichi or Guardiola's sendoff. With another arduous campaign looming just four months away—hopefully beginning with a supercopa clash against Real Madrid—it’s not too early to begin preparations for 2012-2013. Of this, it seems, the Blaugrana are well aware.