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With Messi at his best, Barcelona had no title rival

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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.

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.

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.

Coach Ernesto 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.

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

Watch Live: PL Asia Trophy – Newcastle v. West Ham, Man City v. Wolves

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Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers aim to collect a bit of silverware on the second Premier League Asia Trophy match day of the summer.

But first, a pair of Uniteds look to get off the map after beatdowns in their tournament openers.

Newcastle United and West Ham United were both walloped in Nanjing, and old hands Steve Bruce and Manuel Pellegrini would be happy to massage a victory out of their men.

Then Pep Guardiola and PL champions City get a taste of Wolves before their Oct. 5 meeting in league play.

Below is the full schedule for Saturday’s games in Shanghai’s Hongkou Stadium.

Newcastle United v. West Ham United – 5 a.m. ET – STREAM LIVE
Man City v. Wolves – 7:30 a.m. ET – STREAM LIVE

WATCH: Zlatan stunner answers Vela’s opener in El Trafico

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is walking it like he talks it, not that that’s anything new.

A few days after claiming superiority over LAFC superstar Carlos Vela, Ibrahimovic and his Galaxy trailed early in El Trafico via a Vela penalty.

[ MORE: Latest on Eriksen ]

Naturally, Zlatan took it upon himself to answer the bell with his 14th goal in 17 games.

Ibrahimovic chests a long ball onto his right foot, cooking Eduard Atuesta by pushing it into position for a tremendous lash into the LAFC goal.

And if you haven’t been following LAFC’s amazing season, Atuesta’s probably been the side’s best player after Vela, who now has 20 goals in 20 games.

Wizard stuff.

Borussia Dortmund tops Liverpool 3-2 at Notre Dame

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A half-hour of the big guns wasn’t enough to get Jurgen Klopp a result against his former team.

Harry Wilson and Rhian Brewster scored for Liverpool in a 3-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund at the University of Notre Dame on Friday.

Paco Alcacer, Thomas Delaney, and Jacob Bruun Larsen scored for the Black Yellow, who led 3-1 when mass changes began with Virgil Van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson, and Andrew Robertson entering the match.

Liverpool faces Sevilla on Sunday at Fenway Park in Boston.

[ MORE: Latest on Eriksen ]

Alcacer with the ball in the box is a bad idea, and the Spaniard took advantage of Nathaniel Clyne and Joel Matip to smash home from a yard outside the six.

Wilson leveled the score before halftime, but Delaney made it 2-1 in the 53rd minute when a long diagonal ball beat the Reds line and a low pass across the box went undetected.

It was 3-1 via a clever Bruun Larsen touch to wrong foot James Milner, but Brewster brought the Reds back to within one when he converted a 75th minute penalty won by Ben Woodburn.

Liverpool was without Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah, who are on break after deep summer tournament runs.

Eriksen offered big Spurs wages, but Atletico Madrid lurks

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Christian Eriksen may trade London for Madrid after all, but Marca claims it’ll be Real Madrid’s rivals who earn the services of Tottenham’s Danish playmaker.

Eriksen, 27, scored 10 goals with 17 assists for Spurs in all competitions last season, and was reportedly ready to spread his wings for Real Madrid.

[ MORE: Kean to Everton? ]

But pro-Real site Marca says Zinedine Zidane doesn’t want Eriksen at the Bernabeu, and that Diego Simeone feels differently… should Atletico Madrid fail at landing his prime option.

That’s James Rodriguez, who remains property of Real and that’s a problem.

So Eriksen to Atleti, helping to replace Antoine Griezmann? It’s possible.

From Marca.com:

Just last November, the London club put a 250 million euro price tag on his head, but now appear keen to move him on. The next few days will likely reveal a lot about what’s to come.

So we may get an idea of whether this report has any guts to it by next week. There could be some sense to it, but Metro claims that Spurs are offering Eriksen an “enormous” contract to keep him in North London.

Enormous means a doubling of Eriksen’s wages, and the Dane is said to be happy in England. Might Spurs hold off the finest of La Liga and Serie A after all.