BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — For Barcelona, this season’s Spanish league title will go down as the one that got away.
A league-high 116 goals scored, four fewer goals conceded than champion Real Madrid, and the competitions’ top two scorers in Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez should have been enough to win the title for the third straight year.
But the statistics didn’t mean much in the end because those great numbers and Messi’s continued excellence couldn’t compensate for costly losses to underdog sides and the subpar contribution of Barcelona’s role players.
The Catalan club rallied from two goals down to beat Eibar 4-2 on Sunday at Camp Nou, but Madrid won 2-0 at Malaga to finish three points ahead.
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Here’s a look at Messi’s season and how his team let him down:
ALL FOR NAUGHT
Messi did his part, and then some.
At 29 years old, Messi had another superb individual season worthy of the player widely considered to be the best in the world.
The club’s all-time top scorer broke the 50-goal barrier for the fifth time in his career, scoring a league-high 37 goals to go with 16 in other competitions.
Beyond the goals, he was the team’s best playmaker, showing his unequaled sense of knowing when to fall back into midfield to pass, and when he needed to take it straight at the defense.
Messi added another memorable match to his archive by upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo in a thrilling 3-2 victory at Madrid in April, when he scored a brilliant equalizer to make it 1-1 before snatching the victory with a stoppage-time goal to stun the crowd at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Barcelona only won three of its first seven home matches, digging itself a hole that it could never recover from.
But of its four losses this season, the one it will rue the most was a perplexing 2-1 defeat to promoted Alaves back in September at the Camp Nou.
That stumble proved to be the only home loss of the season, and those three points ended up making the difference.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique had the plan to not overwork Andres Iniesta, who was entering his 15th season at the age of 32.
So last offseason, the club brought in reinforcements Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez to help Sergi Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha and Arda Turan give Iniesta time off.
Those extra options let Iniesta play only the important games, and start in just 13 of 38 matches.
But the plan backfired when his substitutes failed to come even close to replicating his passing and playmaking skills.
That meant Barcelona lost its signature dominance in midfield, leaving its defense exposed to too many counterattacks while Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar waited too long to get the ball.
If there is one date when Barcelona had the perfect chance to catch Madrid and take control of the title race it was April 8.
Madrid stumbled at home against crosstown rival Atletico Madrid, which earned a 1-1 draw on a late goal by Antoine Griezmann. That opened the door for Barcelona to move in front if it could win at Malaga hours later.
Instead, Barcelona self-destructed, falling 2-0 after Neymar was sent off for two senseless yellow cards.
A coach who says he is tired of managing is not the ideal candidate to rally the troops. Luis Enrique even admitted he was burned out midway through the season.
The former Barcelona midfielder will leave the club following three seasons that can only be judged as very successful despite his team’s dip in form during his last year.
Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona has won the Champions League, the Club World Cup, two Spanish leagues and a pair of Copa del Rey titles.
It will have a chance for a third Copa del Rey when it plays Alaves in the final on Saturday in Luis Enrique’s last match.