By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Barcelona underlined their hegemony of Spanish football by clinching the La Liga title with three games to spare after Lionel Messi came off the bench to fire them to a 1-0 win over Levante on Saturday in front of a 91,000-strong Nou Camp crowd.
Captain and all-time top scorer Messi hoisted the trophy into the Barcelona sky to signal his side's 26th title overall, their eighth in 11 years, and for the second season in a row, no-one in Spain has come close to competing with the Catalans.
Barca's dominance of Spanish soccer has been so pronounced that newspaper Marca recently described their vice-like grip on La Liga as "a dictatorship", adding that "the domestic competition has become Barcelona's comfort zone".
After a stuttering start to the campaign in which Sevilla and Atletico traded places with Ernesto Valverde's side at the top of the standings, Barca rose to the summit again at the start of December and rarely looked like being unseated.
Their last defeat was in early November, when they were humbled 4-3 at home by Real Betis and questions were raised about the their fragile defence, with Messi coming out and publicly urging his team mates to improve at the back.
His criticism had the intended impact. After dropping points in five of their opening 12 games, Barca went on a relentless run after the Betis loss, winning 18 of their next 23 matches to get their hands on the trophy.
They effectively banished Real Madrid from the title race with a 1-0 win in the Clasico in March, inflicting more pain on their biggest rivals, who have endured a harrowing season and sacked two managers before re-appointing Zinedine Zidane.
Atletico ran Barca a little closer but never really looked like catching the Catalans, who wrapped their tentacles around the title by beating Diego Simeone's side 2-0 this month with late goals from Messi and Luis Suarez.
It was fitting that strikes from Messi and Suarez effectively sewed up the title, as the South American duo have scored a remarkable 55 goals between them, more than 17 teams in the league, including their closest challengers Atletico.
Messi and Suarez may have led from the front but Barca have also developed a thicker skin this season, backed up by the remarkable consistency of Gerard Pique, who has only missed two games and played every minute when available.
His defensive partner Clement Lenglet, meanwhile, has adapted superbly to his first campaign at the club, as have fellow new arrivals Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal.
Even Ousmane Dembele, who was seen to have serious discipline problems after oversleeping and failing to turn up to two training sessions, has turned into a crowd favourite.
With the title in the bag and their domestic dominance beyond doubt, Barca's main challenge is to put right their recent failures in continental football and add the Champions League, which they last won in 2015.
Should they overcome Liverpool in the semi-finals and win Europe's top prize in Madrid on June 1, no-one will be able to dispute they are the best team at home and abroad.
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)