BARCELONA, Spain — Lionel Messi conjured the perfect finish to a dominant title march by Barcelona on Saturday, when he came off the bench and scored the goal that clinched the Spanish league crown.
After resting until halftime, Messi went on and finally put a shot past Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez in the 62nd minute to start the celebrations at the Camp Nou. Barcelona won 1-0 with Messi's league-leading 34th goal, his 46th in all competitions this season.
After hugging and kissing his children who came on the pitch with the other players' families, Messi received the league trophy from Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales and pumped it in the air.
Barcelona's win put it nine points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid with three rounds to play. Barcelona holds the tiebreaker with Atletico on head-to-head goals.
Atletico beat Valladolid 1-0 earlier, forcing Barcelona to need a victory to wrap up the title this weekend before it turns its attention to its upcoming European clash with Liverpool.
Barcelona won its second straight league title since Ernesto Valverde took over at the start of last season. The title was the club's eighth in 11 seasons. Overall, Barcelona has 26 league titles, second only to Real Madrid's 33.
"To win the title by a good margin, given how difficult it is, and to have done it back-to-back, we are just happy to give our fans something to be happy about," Valverde said. "It is a source of pride for us."
With the league recaptured, Barcelona can focus on completing a rare treble. In the Champions League, it hosts Liverpool on Wednesday in the semifinals, and in the Copa del Rey, it faces Valencia in the final on May 25.
"We have to enjoy this title quickly, because we have to prepare for important matches ahead," said defender Clement Lenglet, who has impressed in his first season at the club.
"The numbers speak for themselves. We all play, but Leo (Messi) helps us all so much and he is why we have so many more league titles."
Messi started his second match in a row on Barcelona's bench, sitting for the first 45 minutes to get some extra rest for Liverpool.
Barcelona dominated the relegation-threatened Levante even without its top scorer, but despite creating chances the hosts couldn't beat Fernandez.
Philippe Coutinho had several shots, but the closest he came to scoring was a free kick that hit the crossbar near halftime.
Messi replaced Coutinho at halftime and was there to finish off a long team buildup that culminated when Arturo Vidal knocked a ball to Messi, who shifted the ball to his left foot to open an angle around a defender and poke a shot past Fernandez.
"(Messi) scores goals against everyone and he has given us the title," Valverde said about his star.
Jose Morales had a chance to level for Levante in the 67th after Ivan Rakitic failed to control a high ball, only to fire high. Enis Bardhi also hit the upright late as Levante kept the result in suspense until the final whistle.
But the night ended with Messi and his teammates locking arms and bouncing in a circle at midfield while more than 90,000 fans cheered around them.
"We had a little of the luck of the champion when the ball hit the post and didn't go in," Barcelona's Luis Suarez said. "Today we showed that against a rival that is fighting to stay in the top flight that we had to play hard until the end, so we have to give a lot of merit to having won another league title."
FOR SECOND PLACE
Atletico's win kept it on pace to at least finish above crosstown rival Real Madrid, which it leads by nine points.
An own-goal by Valladolid defender Joaquin Fernandez in the 66th gave Atletico its sixth win in seven matches. The only setback for Diego Simeone's team was a 2-0 loss at Barcelona, a result that virtually ended its title hopes.
Athletic Bilbao was held by Alaves to 1-1, a result that didn't help either club in the fight for European spots.
Celta Vigo also drew at Leganes 0-0, taking a point as it tries to avoid the drop.