Barcelona, minus Messi, wins Spanish league title for 1st time since 2019
MADRID (AP) — Barcelona is celebrating winning the Spanish league — and this time without Lionel Messi.
Barcelona lifted its first league trophy after Messi's departure with a 4-2 victory at Espanyol on Sunday in a match marred by Espanyol fans storming the pitch at the end of the game and forcing Barcelona players to head for the locker room.
Robert Lewandowski scored twice to lead the Catalan club to its first league title since 2019. The title was secured with four rounds remaining and two years after Messi left amid the club’s financial struggles.
The last time Barcelona had celebrated a league title without Messi in its squad was back in 1998-99. He came into the first team in 2004-05 and won the title that season.
Celebrations on the field were short-lived Sunday as players had to rush to the locker room after a large group of Espanyol fans from the ultra section behind one of the goals started running toward Barcelona players singing and celebrating in the center. Security guards quickly intervened but riot police had to stand in front of the tunnel's entrance to prevent the fans from going in. The supporters threw chairs and other objects.
Alejandro Balde and Jules Koundé also scored for Barcelona, which now has 27 league titles, eight fewer than Real Madrid. Third-place Atletico Madrid is 16 points back after losing 1-0 at last-place Elche earlier Sunday.
The victory over city rival Espanyol gave Barcelona an insurmountable 85 points from 34 matches, 14 points more than Madrid, which won 1-0 at Getafe on Saturday.
Barcelona has led since the 13th round and holds the league’s best defense with 13 goals conceded — 14 better than any other club. It also has 25 clean sheets.
“It’s a magnificent feeling, a feeling of job well done,” Barcelona coach Xavi said. “This is important to give the club’s project some stability. The league title shows that things have been done the right way and that we have to stay on this path.”
Barcelona won eight league titles in 11 seasons through 2019. It finished second to Madrid in 2020, then third — behind Madrid and champion Atletico — in 2021. It was second to Madrid last season.
Barcelona’s first title without Messi came in the Spanish Super Cup in January.
The club was yet to win a major trophy since president Joan Laporta took action to restructure its debt and revamp the squad with players like Lewandowski, Jules Koundé and Raphinha. Laporta celebrated with the players in the locker room.
Lewandowski opened the scoring on Sunday from close range in the 11th minute after a cross by Alejandro Balde. The 19-year-old left back added to the lead nine minutes later off a pass by Pedri, scoring his first league goal with the club.
Lewandowski, the league’s leading scorer with 21 goals, added his second in the 40th after a low cross by Raphinha in a breakaway. Koundé scored the fourth in the 53rd with a header after a long pass by Frenkie de Jong. It was also his first league goal with the club.
The loss dealt a big blow to Espanyol in its fight against relegation. It stayed second-to-last, four points from safety.
Espanyol had won only once in its last 10 league matches, with a draw and eight losses. It was relegated in 2020 for the first time in nearly three decades, returning to the top flight in its first attempt as second-division champion.
Javi Puado scored Espanyol’s first goal in the 73rd and Joselu added the second in stoppage time as Barcelona players were getting ready to celebrate.
It was the 32nd title with Barcelona for midfielder Sergio Busquets, who is leaving the club at the end of the season.
“I wanted to leave by winning an important title like the Spanish league and I'm happy that I was able to do it," he said.
Atletico failed to regain second place after the loss to already-relegated Elche.
That defeat also prevented Atletico from mathematically securing a spot in next season’s Champions League, though it can still do this by earning a point from its last four matches.
It was Atletico’s only second loss in its last 16 league games. The team’s other defeat was at Barcelona in April.
Forward Fidel scored in the 41st minute to give last-place Elche its fourth league win of the season.
Valladolid thought it had opened the scoring against Sevilla when Sergio Escudero hit a powerful long-range shot into the net, but it didn't count because the referee had blown the whistle for halftime just moments earlier.
Valladolid ended up losing 3-0 as Rafa Mir, Papu Gómez and Tecatito Corona scored second-half goals for Sevilla.
Valladolid players and coach Paulo Pezzolano rushed toward the referee to complain but there was nothing that could be done. Pezzolano said referee Ortiz Arias apologized to him during halftime.
Club president Ronaldo, the former Brazil great, said “mistakes of this magnitude can change an entire season.”
Valladolid stayed in 17th place after the home loss to 10th-place Sevilla, one point from the relegation zone.
Alberto Mari scored with a header in the 88th as Valencia beat Celta Vigo 2-1 to boost its chances of avoiding relegation.
The result moved Valencia to 14th, three points from the relegation zone with four matches remaining.
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Tales Azzoni, The Associated Press