Lionel Messi cameo sees Barcelona to victory and back-to-back La Liga titles
BARCELONA, Spain -- Lionel Messi came off the bench to score the only goal of the game as Barcelona sealed their 26th La Liga title with three games to spare in a 1-0 win against Levante.
Messi started as a substitute with Wednesday's Champions League game against Liverpool in mind but emerged at half-time to score his 34th league goal of the season in the 62nd minute.
Barca endured some nervous minutes late on, with Levante striking the post, but held on to the three points as they sealed back-to-back league titles and their eighth in the last 11 years.
One down, two to go. It was a question of when not if Barca would win the league this season, given their lead over Atletico Madrid, but it was important to get it done against Levante. They now don't have to worry about next week's game against Celta Vigo, which is sandwiched in between two games against Liverpool in the space of just six days. Now they can focus exclusively on the Champions League -- and, later, on the Copa del Rey final against Valencia in their quest for a Treble.
Barca were very good, finishing aside, for around an hour -- until Messi scored, in reality. After that, they switched off. There were mistakes made all over the pitch and Levante were the better team for the final 30 minutes. Jose Luis Morales wasted a brilliant chance and Enis Bardhi struck the post. Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane may not be so forgiving in midweek.
Manager Rating out of 10
8 -- Ernesto Valverde has had his fair share of criticism since taking charge but his record can't be faulted. Two league titles in two years and a Treble still on the cards this season. What's more, over the last two games, he's managed to give breathers to Messi, Gerard Pique, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 7 -- Made a huge stop from Borja Mayoral straight after Messi's goal to keep Barca in the lead. Had little to do up until that point, but showed great focus to make the save. Made a couple of other good saves late in the game.
DF Nelson Semedo, 6 -- Had some nice touches but also some awkward moments: gave away free kick on the edge of the box and was later booked for a cynical challenge to stop a Levante counter-attack.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 -- The Catalan centre-back got better and better as the season went on. Did make a couple of minor mistakes after Barca took the lead but also made some key contributions and even joined in the attack at every given opportunity.
DF Clement Lenglet, 6 -- Like Pique, switched off late, but that's unlikely to harm his chances of starting ahead of Samuel Umtiti against Liverpool. Almost opened the scoring in the first half, heading wide.
DF Jordi Alba, 6 -- A couple of nice moments, including a backheel pass to Philippe Coutinho in the first half, but on the periphery of the game when compared to some of his other recent performances.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- Completed the full 90 minutes after sitting out the win over Alaves in midweek. Came close to scoring with a decent effort from distance but also erred to let Morales in.
MF Arturo Vidal, 7 -- Set up Messi's goal with a smart header and, despite the odd give away, wanted to be on the ball all night. Making it very hard for Valverde to leave him out of the big games.
MF Arthur Melo, 6 -- Has now gone 16 games without completing 90 minutes for club and country. Before being taken off here, did well with the ball, his best moment featuring a pass between the lines for Coutinho, who shot at the goalkeeper.
FW Ousmane Dembele, 7 -- Produced some devastating runs with the ball, including one in the build-up to Messi's goal. Made some good runs off the ball, too, but was often ignored by Messi and Luis Suarez.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 -- Missed a couple of chances in the first half but worked hard for 90 minutes, keeping the Levante defence on their toes. Surprisingly, he has played 90 minutes in both of Barca's games this week heading into the Liverpool match.
FW Philippe Coutinho, 7 -- Only played the first 45 minutes but produced one of his best Barca performances since Christmas. Was only let down by his finishing. Four of his five shots were saved by Aitor Fernandez and the other, a brilliant free kick, bounced off the crossbar.
FW Lionel Messi, 8 -- How fitting that it was his goal which won La Liga for Barcelona. That's now 34 in the league this season and 10 league titles in 15 with the club. Came close to scoring a second, too, and also created great chances for Dembele and Vidal.
MF Sergio Busquets, NR -- Replaced Arthur as Valverde looked to stem the Levante attacks.
MF Sergi Roberto, NR -- Came on for the final minute in place of Dembele.