Soccer

Barcelona reclaims Spanish title amid doubts

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MADRID (AP)

Barcelona collected its 22nd Spanish league trophy on Saturday after forward Lionel Messi helped it dominate the competition from start to finish with another outlandish scoring campaign.

Barcelona wrapped up a title that had been a foregone conclusion for months when titleholder Real Madrid drew 1-1 at Espanyol, giving it an insurmountable seven-point lead.

Even so, its fourth domestic title in five seasons comes when the first cracks in its five-year run at the top of the sport are starting to show.

Barcelona was recently thrashed by a combined 7-0 score by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals, its first resounding defeat since former coach Pep Guardiola started its current winning era.

The stinging elimination from Bayern and a pair of defeats to Madrid this year has cast a degree of doubt over the Catalan club's future just when it should be celebrating a stellar league campaign.

''We have had a good season,'' said Barcelona defender Jordi Alba. ''In the Champions League semifinals we didn't rise to the occasion and Bayern showed it is playing at an incredible level. But we had a good season anyway. It seems to me that the league title is underappreciated.''

While coach Tito Vilanova insists there will be on overhaul of his squad this summer, it's clear Barcelona has been dethroned as Europe's premier side, leading defender Gerard Pique to say that ''decisions will have to be made'' this offseason.

That said, there was a lot to cheer about in Camp Nou.

Madrid holds a record 32 league titles, but Barcelona has established itself as Spain's most successful team over the past decade with six league titles in nine seasons. The last team other than Barcelona or Madrid to win the title was Valencia in 2004.

And with the season still not over, Vilanova's team can match Madrid's record haul of 100 points from last season if it wins all four of its remaining games.

''I think this league title should be valued,'' said Vilanova. ''What happened was that at certain moments of the season there was the sensation that it had already been won, but that isn't so because Madrid is having a great second half of the season. If we had relaxed they would have caught us. I think that gives it more value.

''How could it be otherwise? We were competing with the best Madrid ever, the team of the 100 points.''

Messi was again the key component of Barcelona's relentless title march. The Argentina international added three more milestones that will be tough to break to his already impressive resume.

Messi became the first player to be chosen world player of the year four times; he scored 91 goals in 2012 to surpass Gerd Mueller's 40-year-old mark; and he has found the net in a record 21 straight league appearances to shatter the old mark that had stood at 10.

He has scored 46 goals so far even though he missed three games with a nagging right hamstring injury. He scored a record 50 league goals last season and could still better it.

Many expected Barcelona to struggle or at least take its time to adapt to Vilanova in his move from Guardiola's soft-spoken right-hand man to team boss.

Instead, Barcelona roared out to an unprecedented start of 18 wins and a draw before finally losing its first match in late January, deciding the league title early on and eliminating any and all drama in the second half of the season.

Barcelona also managed to deal with the recurrence of Vilanova's throat tumor, which forced him to step aside for surgery in late December and then spend 10 weeks in New York receiving treatment, leaving the team in the hands of assistant Jordi Roura.

Without its first-year coach who had been Guardiola's assistant during the team's run of 14 of a possible 19 titles, Barcelona continued to win in the league, even if it did fall to Madrid in the Copa del Rey and need a historic 4-0 comeback to rally past AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Throughout the season, Barcelona showed the week-in, week-out dedication that Madrid, which had finally broken Barcelona's three-year hold on the league title last season, lacked, especially away from its Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

If there was one date that swung the league in Barcelona's favor it was Dec. 16. On that Sunday, Messi scored twice to help Barcelona beat then second-place Atletico 4-1 and open up a nine-point lead, just hours after Madrid slipped to a 2-2 home draw against Espanyol to fall 13 points adrift.

Madrid coach Jose Mourinho correctly predicted that Madrid's title defense was impossible at that point.

Madrid also did its part by concentrating its efforts on winning an elusive 10th European Cup, before also bowing out of the Champions League semifinals to Borussia Dortmund.

Besides Messi's goals, Barcelona was led by the same core of players that has guided it to the top of world football over the past five seasons.

Veteran playmaker Xavi Hernandez provided the ball control, Andres Iniesta the incisive dribbling, and - despite falling in and out of favor- Cesc Fabregas chipped in with 10 goals. It also got a boost by the return of Eric Abidal from a liver transplant last season.

Still, Barcelona's humbling by Bayern will likely put a damper on its return to the top of Spain.

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