LIONEL Messi’s second-half winner sealed the Primera Division title for Barcelona, who claimed a narrow 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon last night and, in the process, beat Real Madrid to the Spanish crown.
Four points behind before kick-off, Real Madrid breathed life into the title race by taking the lead at Espanyol as Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the first goal of an eventual hat-trick while Barca were still struggling to break through against Atletico.
Messi then scored to render Real’s result irrelevant, and Real Madrid had to restore their lead through a Marcelo strike and two more Ronaldo goals after Christian Stuani managed to level for Espanyol. It finished 4-1 at El Prat, but Real’s challenge was over with one match of the season remaining as Barca sealed their 23rd Spanish title with a game to go.
Barca had goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to thank for holding Atletico at bay as they held on in the second half, where efforts from Messi and Neymar could have doubled their margin of victory.
The home side tested Barca stopper Bravo early on but the Chile international managed to keep out Jose Gimenez’s header from Koke’s cross and it was almost all one-way traffic in the visitors’ favour for the remainder of the opening 45 minutes.
Messi got a header on target after 11 minutes and again two minutes later, the second from just outside the six-yard box well saved by Jan Oblak.
Barca came close again midway through the first half with Neymar sending his strike over.
After some great build-up work, Barca could have taken the lead seven minutes before the break but Sergio Busquets fired his long-range shot wide as the visitors continued in search of breaking the deadlock.
Barca continued to dominate and Dani Alves tested Oblak in his side’s last chance of the half, forcing the Slovenia international into a brilliant save as he pushed the ball over his bar.
The away side began to dominate as the second half got under way, but – down at the other end – Atletico appealed for handball against Andres Iniesta after the ball was fired into the bridge of his nose by Antoine Griezmann just inside the box and the Spaniard went off the pitch for treatment.
Diego Godin got his head onto the end of Koke’s corner moments later, sending his effort over the bar as the hosts began to create chances.
Fernando Torres came close to opening the scoring after 55 minutes for Atleti but his shot from 12 yards was safely collected by Bravo.
Tempers began to flare after Neymar was tripped by Gabi before limping back into action.
Messi finally broke the deadlock after 65 minutes in what ended up becoming a defining moment for his side as they sealed the title. The Argentina striker played a lovely one-two with Pedro on the edge of the box before firing home from close range into the bottom corner for the opener – much to the delight of the travelling fans.
Moments later, Neymar fired Iniesta’s cross wide as Barca looked to double their score before the Brazilian sent Messi’s pass flying into the stands.
Barca continued in search of a second but the pace of the match slowed considerably as the minutes ticked down.
The hosts did not give up, though, and Koke’s powerful strike bounced off a Barca defender as their opponents held on for the remaining five minutes.
Simeone’s men continued to press for an equaliser but Bravo did well to hold late efforts before Barcelona were awarded a free-kick just outside the box down at the other end as the seconds ticked down – Messi managed to curl his effort around the wall but it was kept out by a diving Oblak.
Atletico’s defeat means that they can be removed from third place by Valencia on the last day, given Los Che are only three points behind and trail Los Rojiblancos by a single strike in the goal-difference charts.
But a 1-1 draw with Celta Vigo, which saw Nicolas Otamendi rescue a point after Pablo Hernandez’s early opener, leaves Valencia vulnerable to Sevilla, who are one point shy in fifth following a 2-1 victory over Almeria.
Meanwhile, Athletic Bilbao mounted a late comeback to edge Elche 3-2 and move into seventh place. Above them are Villarreal, 2-1 winners over Malaga.
The battle to avoid relegation will go to the final day with Eibar and Almeria occupying 18th and 19th spots, while Deportivo La Coruna and Granada are two points better off and just clear of the drop zone after important victories.
Eibar could only draw 1-1 at Getafe and Deportivo sit in a precarious position despite beating Levante 2-0.
Granada defied the odds to move into 16th as they claimed a 3-0 win over David Moyes’ Real Sociedad at Anoeta.
Elsewhere, Rayo Vallecano moved into the top half by defeating basement boys Cordoba 2-1.