Soccer

Lionel Messi leads Barcelona to Spanish League crown

AP

Lionel Messi conjured the perfect finish to a dominant title march by Barcelona on Saturday, coming off the bench and scoring the goal that clinched the Spanish League crown.

After resting until halftime, Messi went on and finally put a shot past Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez in the 62nd minute to start the celebrations at Camp Nou. Barcelona won 1-0 with Messi’s league-leading 34th goal, his 46th in all competitions this season.

After hugging and kissing his children, who came on the pitch with the other players’ families, Messi received the league trophy from Spanish soccer federation president Luis Rubiales and pumped it in the air.

Barcelona won its second straight La Liga title since Ernesto Valverde took over at the start of last season. The title was the club’s eighth in 11 seasons. Overall, Barcelona has 26 league titles, second only to Real Madrid’s 33.

“(Messi) scores goals against everyone and he has given us the title,” Valverde said. “To win the title by a good margin, given how difficult it is, and to have done it back-to-back, we are just happy to give our fans something to be happy about. It is a source of pride for us.”

Barcelona’s win put it nine points ahead of second-place Atletico Madrid with three rounds to play. Barcelona holds the tiebreaker with Atletico on head-to-head goals.

Atletico beat Valladolid 1-0 earlier in the day, which meant Barcelona needed a victory to wrap up the title this weekend before it turns its attention to its upcoming European clash against Liverpool.

With the league recaptured, Barcelona can focus on completing a rare treble. In the Champions League, it hosts Liverpool on Wednesday in the semifinals, and in the Copa del Rey, it faces Valencia in the final on May 25.

“This club was important before, but this generation of players has made it one-of-a-kind, for the titles we have won and the way we have won them,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “And we want to keep this going. We are fortunate enough to be in two more competitions and we hope that we can celebrate more this season.”

Messi started his second match in a row on Barcelona’s bench, sitting for the first 45 minutes to get some extra rest for Liverpool.

The closest Barcelona came to scoring against relegation-threatened Levante without Messi was Philippe Coutinho’s free kick that hit the crossbar.

Messi replaced Coutinho at halftime and was there to finish off a long team buildup that culminated when Arturo Vidal knocked a ball to Messi, who shifted the ball to his left foot to open an angle around a defender and poke a shot past Fernandez.

Jose Morales had a chance to level for Levante after Ivan Rakitic failed to control a high ball, only to fire his own shot high. Enis Bardhi also hit the upright late as Levante kept the result in doubt until the final whistle.

But the night ended with Messi and his teammates locking arms and bouncing in a circle at midfield while more than 90,000 fans cheered around them.

“We had a little of the luck of the champion when the ball hit the post and didn’t go in,” Barcelona’s Luis Suarez said. “Today we showed that against a rival that is fighting to stay in the top flight that we had to play hard until the end, so we have to give a lot of merit to having won another league title.”