Barcelona storm to La Liga title but work to be done this summer

by Thomas ALLNUTT
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Catch me if you can: Lionel Messi in action on Sunday

Barcelona will bid a glorious farewell to Andres Iniesta after winning La Liga on Sunday to seal a domestic double but this season may mark the end for more than just the 33-year-old midfielder.

Iniesta is calling time, for some prematurely, on his 22-year association with the club he joined as a 12-year-old and he goes out on a high after Barca turned what threatened to be a transitional, even turbulent, campaign into a tremendous one.

They wrapped up the title with four games to spare, 11 points ahead of Atletico Madrid and 15 clear of Real.

They have been top since beating Espanyol in their third game on September 9. They are 41 league matches unbeaten and four away from becoming the first ever side to finish a single La Liga calendar as invincibles.

As title races go, this one was a whitewash but all the more surprising then, that this Barca side will not be remembered particularly fondly, even by their own supporters.

Before last weekend's Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, which they won 5-0, Barcelona's daily sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo wrote Ernesto Valverde's future as coach could be in doubt if they missed out on the double.

When Barca threw away a 4-1 advantage to lose to Roma in the Champions League quarter-finals, the same publication described it as a "disaster", "disgrace" and, most damaging of all, "deserved".

That collapse will still hang over the title celebrations, because it was not a one-off -- this was Barca's third consecutive exit in the last eight -- and because Real's march towards the final has heightened the sense of absence.

But more than their departure in Europe, Valverde's team have departed from tradition in the way they have won.

Barca have scored 87 goals, with four matches left. Since Pep Guardiola's first season in charge, they have won the title seven times, with their goals scored column for those years reading 105, 98, 95, 115, 110 and 112.

This team was not always entertaining and occasionally it was even dull, but it was organised, disciplined and never knew when it was beaten.

Late escapes against Espanyol, Atletico and Sevilla preserved the undefeated run and maintained momentum. The dogged 1-0 victory over Atletico in March all-but delivered the title.

Lionel Messi's free-kick proved decisive that day and the Argentinian has arguably been the difference all season, offering creativity, penetration and a league-high 32 goals to a team not so blessed with attacking imagination.

But even if underwhelming on the eye and perhaps over-reliant on Messi, Valverde and his team deserve even greater credit considering where they began in August.

When the unexpected sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain was followed by Super Cup defeats home and away by Real Madrid, many concluded Barca's squad had been worsened by the transfer market, not improved.

Despite the impressive job Valverde has done since, that will have to be rectified this summer.

In the Copa del Rey final, only three players in the starting line-up were younger than 29 -- Samuel Umtiti, Sergi Roberto and Philippe Coutinho.

With Iniesta gone, only Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique will be left of Guardiola's 'tika-takas', the latter pair both showing signs this season that Barca could do with a more capable back-up.

Coutinho is expected to fill Iniesta's shoes, although that gargantuan task cannot be completed overnight, and Antoine Griezmann's potential arrival from Atletico would allow the 31-year-old Luis Suarez more regular rest next term.

But on the flanks and in midfield, Barca need more quality and depth. As well as Messi, they have relied on the brilliant Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal too often.

Barcelona's domestic dominance has been as relentless as it has been remarkable but this ageing squad is creaking and in need of renovation.

To do it again, and do better in Europe, it will need to be a busy summer.

Catch me if you can: Lionel Messi in action on Sunday

Doubters: Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde proved his critics wrong