- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - With Lionel Messi back to his very best, Barcelona brushed aside legal troubles and Real Madrid’s vigorous challenge to win the Spanish league title in Sunday’s penultimate round. The Catalan club could still go on to win a treble, having reached the final of the Champions League and Copa del Rey.

Here are three key factors behind Barcelona’s 23rd league title:

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MESSI 2.0

Just when some thought Messi may have passed his peak, one of the game’s best ever scorers also became Barcelona’s leading playmaker to help Neymar and Luis Suarez form an unstoppable strike force.

The Argentina star bounced back from last season’s major disappointments - Barcelona finishing without a major title and his national team losing in the World Cup final to Germany - by taking over from Xavi Hernandez as Barcelona’s most incisive passer.

Time and again, Messi unlocked defenses by dropping back into midfield where he would look to set up his teammates.

He assisted on 17 league goals this season, while still finding time to score 41 of his own in the league and another 13 in other competitions.

Fittingly enough, his goal at Atletico Madrid on Sunday clinched the title with a 1-0 win.

In a four-day span in November, the 27-year-old Messi broke Telmo Zarra’s Spanish league record of 251 goals and Raul Gonzalez’s Champions League milestone of 71 goals.

All told, Messi is well on his way to reclaiming the Ballon d’Or award for the world’s best player from Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo.

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DEADLY VERSATILITY

This Barcelona side didn’t just play beautiful football, it went for the jugular like rarely before.

First-year coach Luis Enrique emphasized effectiveness in attack over the club’s traditional focus on keeping possession. The result was a more versatile attack than the ball-control style established by Pep Guardiola, which had become predictable under successors Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino.

The arrival of Suarez, along with an improved Neymar, gave Enrique the perfect strike partners for Messi, and the trio exploded for a combined 115 goals overall. Their 79 league goals are more than every other team in La Liga other than Madrid.

On top of this, Dani Alves had his best season in years and Ivan Rakitic became a key midfield hustler, while Andres Iniesta was the team’s on-pitch leader with Xavi Hernandez on the bench.

Barcelona even became dangerous from set pieces with center back Gerard Pique also playing his best in several seasons and new signing Jeremy Mathieu scoring two important goals from corner kicks in back-to-back wins against Madrid and Celta Vigo in the final stretch of the season.

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SECOND HALF

If there is one date that stands out this season, it is Jan. 4 when Barcelona’s 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad in the first game after the winter break threatened to provoke a club meltdown.

The defeat, coming after Barcelona failed to appeal FIFA’s one-year transfer ban for violating rules on youth player transfers, led to the firing of sports director Andoni Zubizarreta and the club calling early elections this summer.

But amid reports that Messi was unhappy with the coach, the team came together and responded with a superb second half of the season.

Barcelona eliminated Atletico Madrid from the Copa del Rey, beat Madrid to cement its hold on the league lead, and bettered Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich- the defending English, French and German champions at the time - to reach the Champions League final.

During that stretch, Enrique also managed to prevent his squad from being distracted by a tax-fraud case connected to the club’s signing of Neymar.

Enrique can now match Guardiola’s three titles from his first season at Barcelona with a win over Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on May 30, before playing Juventus in the Champions League final on June 6 in Berlin.


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