With Messi at his best, Barcelona had no title rival

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Without Cristiano Ronaldo around to at least keep it interesting, a spectacular Lionel Messi had no rival to stop him from helping Barcelona successfully defend its Spanish league title.

Barcelona clinched the crown with three rounds left on Saturday, after Messi scored to beat Levante 1-0 at Camp Nou.

But this was coming for a long time. Barcelona lost only two games in 35 rounds, and opened up a significant lead early in the season.

It brushed off the only timid attempt to give it a fight, by Atletico Madrid, to secure an eighth title in 11 seasons.

Overall, Barcelona has 26 Liga trophies, second only to Real Madrid with 33.

Now Barcelona can put all of its focus on completing a rare treble of titles. It will face Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals from Wednesday, and plays Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on May 25.

How did Barcelona do it with such apparent ease?

Here are a few reasons:.

MESSI.

When Messi couldn’t possibly get any better, he did just that and guided Barcelona to its 10th league title of the 15 he’s disputed.

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Messi will be in the running to win a record sixth Ballon d’Or for his season, after scoring 46 goals in all competitions so far and setting up a bunch more for his teammates.

The Liga’s all-time leading scorer was particularly deadly from set-pieces. Six of his 34 league goals came from direct free kicks. At one point, Messi scored from a free kick in three straight matches in late March and early April.

At 31, he is still faster with the ball than most players are without it. His vision of the pitch is unmatched. His left boot is pure danger for goalkeepers whenever he gets a sliver of space near the area.

And to top it off, Messi took over as Barcelona’s vocal leader after the exit of Andres Iniesta last summer.

Long gone was the floppy hair, tight-lipped Messi from his early days, who shied away from the camera and the microphone. Now, it is Messi who speaks for his teammates on the field with referees, and — on occasion– to the media following the match.

His majesty was exemplified in a game in Seville on March 17.

When Messi scored his third goal with a nonchalant-looking lob that floated over the goalie and grazed the bar before going home, the Real Betis fans stood up, applauded, and chanted “Messi! Messi! Messi!” In tribute to his unforgettable performance.

“Messi is obviously at the heart of all this,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “This run of titles has his name all on it, above all the rest. It is something that everyone recognizes. He defines our style of play. His competitiveness is contagious and he obliges us all to rise to his level.”.

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DEFENSE.

Long defined by its excellent midfielders, Barcelona’s defenders stepped up as its most complete unit.

Gerard Pique led a back four with his best season to date. Pique, 32, redoubled his dedication to the club after retiring from international football last summer. The result was a constantly flawless series of performances.

Clement Lenglet surpassed expectations as Pique’s partner in the center of the defense. After arriving from Sevilla, he was supposed to be Samuel Umtiti’s backup. But his skill at making timely tackles won him a starter’s job after Umtiti went down with injury.

Jordi Alba was one of Messi’s favorite players to look for in his speedy incursions down the left flank, while Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo gave coach Ernesto Valverde two fast and reliable options at right back.

SQUAD DEPTH.

Luis Suarez again was a perfect second scoring option to Messi, chipping in with 21.

Valverde masterfully mixed his other weapons to help his team do damage, alternating between the speed of Ousmane Dembele at winger, the ball control of Arthur, and the muscle and hustle of Arturo Vidal as each moment dictated.

Ivan Rakitic also excelled as Valverde’s sturdy two-way player. The Croat provided balance in attack and helped Sergio Busquets sweep the center of the pitch.

The strength of Barcelona’s squad was never more evident than on Oct. 28, when Suarez scored a hat trick to fuel a 5-1 rout of Madrid while Messi was out with an injured arm.

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NO CHALLENGERS.

It wasn’t hard to predict that if Madrid had rarely stopped Barcelona from winning the title in recent years that it would have an even greater difficulty once Ronaldo left for Juventus.

But Madrid was a disaster from the second month of the season. It was out of the title chase before the winter break and fired coaches Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari before Zinedine Zidane returned to a team with just pride to play for.

Atletico Madrid was the only team worthy of being called a candidate for the title. But a 2-0 win by Barcelona over Atletico thanks to goals by Messi and Suarez ended the slim chances for Diego Simeone’s side with seven rounds left.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.Com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.Com/AP_Sports.

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