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How Barcelona won its 1st Spanish league title since Messi’s traumatic exit

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona’s risky bet to mortgage the club’s future paid off Sunday — in the short term at least — when a team led by newcomer Robert Lewandowski clinched its first Spanish league title in four years.

Barcelona won its 27th league title, second to Real Madrid’s 35, with four rounds remaining after a 4-2 win at Espanyol with a pair of goals by Lewandowski.

Now the club can finally start a new chapter after winning its first major title since the painful exit of Lionel Messi two years ago.

Here is how Barcelona led the league since the 13th round, brushing aside an arguably more talented Real Madrid side and giving Atletico Madrid no chance of catching up.

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When club president Joan Laporta, the man who first hired Pep Guardiola nearly 15 years ago, returned for a second stint in charge near the end of the 2019-2020 season, he found a club in ruins.

The financial situation of the club with 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion) of debt meant Laporta could not honor his pledge to convince Messi to stay. Instead, Laporta told Barcelona's greatest player that he had to leave because the club could not afford him.

So last season, after seeing the team win zero titles, Laporta and his board decided it was time for drastic action. They sold off 25% of its Spanish league TV rights for the next 25 years for 667 million euros ($725 million) along with other assets.

That cash was used to revamp the squad with the transfers of Lewandowski, Jules Koundé, Raphinha and signing free agents Franck Kessie, Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso.

Even though Barcelona once again flopped in the Champions League group phase, in addition to losing to Manchester United early in the Europa League playoffs, it did put Barcelona back in contention in the Spanish league.

LEWANDOWSKI

Lewandowski showed that the former Bayern Munich star still has the ability to regularly find the holes in rival defenses when given just a sliver of space.

The 34-year-old Lewandowski had no trouble at all adapting to his new team after eight highly successful seasons with Bayern. The Poland striker leads the Spanish league with 21 goals.

Raphinha added seven goals while sharing playing time with Ousmane Dembélé, who scored six times in the league before being injured for several weeks.

TER STEGEN

After a couple of years where the German appeared to have lost his best form, Marc-Andre ter Stegen was back to playing like the goalkeeper that helped Barcelona win its last Champions League title back in 2015.

While Madrid leads the league in scoring with 70 goals, Barcelona needed just 64 goals to win the title thanks to its great defense that conceded a competition-low 13 goals.

Ter Stegen kept 25 clean sheets.

The backline was led by Ronald Araújo, who ensured that Barcelona did not miss the midseason retirement of Gerard Piqué. Araújo was Barcelona’s best one-on-one defender, especially against Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior in their “clasico” matches.

BRIGHT FUTURE

The best news for Barcelona is that its future seems secure after the continued growth of its youngest starters.

Midfielders Gavi Páez (18) and Pedri González (20) have won the past two Golden Boy awards for Europe’s best under-21 players, while Alejandro Balde (19) displaced long-time starter Jordi Alba as Xavi’s preferred option at left back this season.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Barcelona faces an uncertain off-season, even without considering the possibility that Messi turns down more lucrative offers – say from Saudi Arabia – and returns from Paris Saint-Germain.

The club was barely able to meet the Spanish league’s strict financial control rules last season in time to register all its players, and some more long nights loom for Barcelona’s bookkeepers.

The club still needs to reduce its salary burden, and that means it may have to sell players.

It would not be surprising to see the club have to consider offers for Raphinha and Dembélé, who both play as right wingers, striker Ansu Fati, or even midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who the club wanted to sell last summer.

It will also have to find a replacement for sports director Mateu Alemany, one of the main architects of Barcelona’s rebuild last season, after his surprising decision announced earlier this month that he was quitting.

Among its pressing needs on the squad is how to replace longtime holding midfielder Sergio Busquets, who announced last week that he will leave the club this summer.

Next season the team and its fans will have to adapt to playing at a smaller stadium while Camp Nou is renovated. Beyond lower ticket sales, the temporary move will also test Barcelona's home strength: Camp Nou seats 98,000, compared to the 56,000 at the Olympic Stadium.

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