Barcelona FC won a nervy first match of the new year, with goals from Pedro in the 47th and 59th minutes, however a stunning strike from Stuani in the 80th minute ensured that the final fifteen minutes remained a tense affair.
Whilst the 8-0 scoreline of Real Madrid’s recent victory over Levante should have boded well for our performance in this game, a return to play after a period of absence always brings with it some nervousness, and Barça’s recent history suggests that our particular style of play suffers from lack of playing time: last season we drew in a laboured 1-1 game with Villareal, our only points lost at Camp Nou all season; following that we had the double header aggregate loss in the Copa del Rey to Sevilla. To complicate matters, we would be without Leo Messi, who had returned from Argentina too late to play, and also our first choice backline, Puyol having picked up what appears a minor injury in the Catalonia-Honduras game, and Pique suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card. Busquets and Abidal began as centre backs, Milito having too recently returned from injury to start, with Maxwell and Alves completing the backline; Mascherano, Xavi, and Iniesta started in midfield; and Pedro, Villa and Bojan were up front, with Bojan tending to hold the centre forward position, and Pedro and Villa on the wings, later switching flanks to test the Levante defence.
The Levante backline itself grew over the course of the game. Luis Garcia initially set out a 4-5-1 formation, however this quickly shifted to a 5-5-0 under pressure, before eventually becoming 6-4-0, with the back six tight against the area, something that we have become accustomed to when playing against weaker teams in the league where a draw is good enough. We begun positively, enjoying our typical levels of possession (77% in the first 20 minutes), suffered relatively little pressure on the ball outside of the final third, and were energetic in chasing Levante down the rare moments they did get the ball, however despite some bright work in the first twenty minutes, particularly from Iniesta who without Messi was given a relatively free role, we failed to draw any blood. Our best chance in the opening exchanges came from an atypical shot from outside the box from Iniesta, whose curling chip to the top right corner was just tipped over by Levante’s keeper Reina. In the 13th minute Villa showed good feet, running across the edge of the area before shooting back across goal, the final product just rolling a foot wide of the far post, whilst a nice interchange between Alves, Xavi and Villa eventually saw Bojan’s attempt snuffed out by an alert Reina. Despite Barca’s dominance, in two breakaway runs on goal Levante had arguably the best chances of the half: in the 16th minute, Abidal had to show his pace to beat Jorda to a dangerous long ball, however Valdes’s snap clearance from Abidal’s pass was picked up by Levante and Valdes had to make a sliding save to deny Jorda; minutes later Juanlu got on the end of lofted ball from Xisco Nadal while the Barça backline were guilty of waving too hopefully for offside but again Abidal’s pace showed itself by robbing Juanlu in the area just before he had a chance to steady himself to shoot.
After these breaks, however, Levante were quick to get players back into their own half and Barça spent too much of the game facing all eleven opposition players between them and goal. We threatened during the first half again: Iniesta in the 25th minute made an intimidating run into the area from the left, passing to Bojan who was smothered out by the diving form of the goalkeeper and defenders; a minute later Iniesta reached the by-line to cut the ball back, just a little too deep for Xavi to connect properly, and the rebound off the defender spiralled so that Alves could only manage to send it sprawling over the bar. Then, in the 41st minute, another threatening run from Iniesta won a corner, which was taken short from Xavi to Iniesta, before being laid off to Villa, whose rasping shot could only be knocked down in the six yard box, before the whistle was blown as Busquets was a little overzealous in getting to the rebound. Later following a lovely cut-back from Iniesta, Xavi tried to pass the ball into the net to be denied by Reina, Busquets feeding the deflected ball out to Abidal whose shot was again saved by Reina. As half time approached, we seemed to become increasingly frustrated and slightly more anxious, snatching shots from unlikely distances and tension seemed to be creeping in as we made increasingly uncharacteristic overhit passes. When the whistle blew, we were clearly the better team, but as we struggled to find a way through that parked bus a nil-nil draw was not beyond imagination.
Of course, all the team required was a little Pep-talk: Guardiola needed only ask for patience and passing from his players to be rewarded in the 47th minute. After some bright play around the edge of the area – Iniesta to Villa on the left wing, Iniesta receiving the ball in return before cutting back to Xavi in the centre – a typical Xavi lofted pass found Alves running into the area from the right wing. Alves dummied a shot to lose Nano, but he dallied further and as other players closed it seemed that Alves’s hesitation had lost us the opportunity. Then he played it onto Pedro in front of goal, who still had much to do, needing to run away from goal to lose his marker, before reversing the shot back past the keeper into the centre of the goal. As against all parked buses, the goal changed the momentum of the game, as Levante came out to attack more, and with space came swagger. Mascherano came off to be replaced by Thiago whose winding runs going forward provided a further threat and we played confident football: Xavi to Iniesta, Iniesta ghosting out to Maxwell, Maxwell back to Xavi to Thiago, whose shot from the edge of the area could only be knocked down by Reina and just recovered by the keeper in time to deny an advancing Bojan. Minutes later a similar classy interchange, this time Villa firing over. Then in the 59th minute, Bojan found Alves with a good pass out on the right, who darted into the area and cut the ball back to Pedro, who delivered a fantastic finish from the edge of the box, powering the ball past the keeper into the opposite corner.
It seemed likely that we would go on to rack up the sort of score line that we have become accustomed to – the play was all Barça, with a number of good chances, most notably a lovely ball from Thiago slipped through to Pedro with only the crossbar preventing his hat trick; a break from a rare Levante corner saw a further goal denied by remarkably unfortunate bounces from a poor Alves cross which leapfrogged both Villa and Pedro in front of goal; and a Villa freekick rustling the top of the net for the second time in the match. And with Keita coming on for Bojan in the 65th minute, making the necessary re-adjustment defensively for Thiago’s more aggressive introduction, and Milito getting a run-out in the 79th minute for Maxwell, allowing Abidal to return to his normal left back position, the last thing we expected was to have a nervy finish. Yet just as we had been patient in our approach, so too did Luis Garcia hold faith in his tactics, refusing to make more offensive changes, with three like-for-like substitutions close after the 70 minute mark. Holding their ultra defensive shape, Levante weathered our attacks and then, in the 80th minute, two of Luis Garcia’s substitutes combined, with Valdo chipping a perfectly weighted ball to Stuani who took it on the volley, a ripping shot that left Valdes with no chance. We were guilty of leaving a lot of space in front of our centre backs and we were slow to close and the goal was perhaps a fair reflection of a generally unconvincing defensive performance, with too many players out of position.
The remainder of the game was a tense affair, and whilst Barça had the best of the remaining chances, it felt as though we were the team trying to see out the clock, as reflected when Busquets got booked (perhaps unfairly) for time wasting in the 89th minute. In the final minute of extra time it was hearts in mouth time when even Reina came forward for a final Levante free kick into the box, but Milito got his head to it first and then Valdes punched to clear before being fouled. Keita tried to take the foul quickly with Reina marooned but the referee called the ball back to the spot of the offence and then blew the whistle for full time.
Overall we deserved to win the game, but it certainly was something of a struggle, however coming from the winter break perhaps this was a case of having to win, rather than having to win well.
Defence: Whilst increasingly pundits (particularly ignorant English pundits) are no longer citing Barca’s defence as weak with Pique and Puyol now ranked amongst the strongest centre back pairings in world football, particularly following their success at the world cup, without either of them playing today we looked vulnerable. It should be noted that Abidal had an excellent game, and perhaps now us fans may no longer need worry when he is called in to substitute at centre back, but Busquets did not look very assured playing out of position. Never once during the game did we have both a centre back and defensive midfielder playing in their preferred positions at the same time, and to concede only one goal could be considered fortunate. With Milito, Puyol, and Abidal all over thirty, it seemed a shame not to see Fontas or Bartra play at all tonight, as we will likely need to call on their services increasingly, else make a dip into the transfer market.
The “Parked Bus”: Levante’s backline stayed very tight across the area, leaving some space behind the wingers, but with Alves and Iniesta’s tendency to cut inside we failed to exploit the flanks. It would have been interesting to see Adriano given a run out or perhaps Maxwell more license to get forward to the byline. We lacked movement around the box and also strength within it – shocking to say, we missed physicality offered by a certain Argentinean, all 5’6” of him. Villa tended to sit a little too deep at times or too far out on the wing and wasn’t involved enough, whilst in the first half Pedro was starved of possession. Bojan was far too unwilling to turn and take people on, too often moving away from goal with the ball. Only Iniesta offered any directness in the first half, although he lacked the needle-like precision required to thread the ball for the killer assist.
Bojan as centre forward: After signing a contract extension followed by an excellent game in the Catalonia-Honduras match with two goals and two assists, tonight was a great opportunity for Bojan to challenge the Pedro-Messi-Villa triumvirate, however, sadly, Bojan’s game was disappointing. Too often was he muscled off the ball, most notably towards the end of the first half, when he went down too easily under a nudge from Nano, failing to get on a cross from Alves, and then picking up a card after remonstrating too much to the referee.
Thiago and Iniesta: Grouped together, as Thiago sometimes seems the image of Iniesta, Iniesta was the most exciting player in the first half, and Thiago took the baton to provide the creative threat for the second. Iniesta started the game with a somewhat free role behind the front three, generally drifting to the left, and when Bojan went off, Iniesta moved forward allowing Thiago this free role. Iniesta disappeared slightly from the game thereafter, as has been noted when he plays on the wing, but Thiago made up for this relative absence. It would be interesting to see Thiago given an extended opportunity playing in place of Iniesta in a more standard starting line up to see what he can make of it.
Set-plays: Due to the positive connotations within the phrase, “corners won” shouldn’t really be used with Barça, as they rarely result in meaningful attempts on goal. Too often we end up playing the ball back towards our backline and by the time we are moving forward again all territorial advantage has been lost. And whilst this current squad is certainly a golden generation, the acclaim has not come for their free kick prowess. David Villa had two good attempts, but it’s been too long since we’ve seen an imaginative set-play, a free kick taken quickly, some clever movement in the box splitting defenders, or disguised passes chosen over direct shots.
The opposition: Levante worked hard and were well organised – whilst they did not deserve the draw their performance was very creditable. They currently sit 17th in the table but let’s hope they prove the little train that could and manage to stay out of the drop zone at the end of the season.
A minute’s silence: Before the game kicked-off a minute’s silence was held to remember Ramon Montesinos, who played for Barça from 1963-67, and passed away on 29th December.
A view to Madrid: Those hoping for some potential schadenfreude may do well to watch Real tomorrow night; they face Getafe who have won their last five games on the trot (aggregate 10-3).
A record breaking night: As noted in the preview, with tonight’s performance Xavi equalled the all-time highest appearance record set by Migueli of 549. After the match Xavi spoke to the crowd and President Rosell lauded our lynchpin, “Xavi has won everything and he represents the Barça values: effort, loyalty, work and heart … Loyalty is a difficult value to find and what Xavi has done for Barca is extraordinary”.
Barça: Valdés 6; Alves 6, Busquets 5.5, Abidal 7.5, Maxwell 6 (Milito m77, -), Mascherano 6 (Thiago m49, 7), Xavi 7, Iniesta 7; Villa 6.5, Bojan 5 (Keita m65, 6), Pedro 7.5
Levante: Reina; Cerra, Robuste, Nano, del Horno; Xavi Torres, Larrea, Xisco Nadal (Valdo m71), Pallardo, Juanlu (Xisco m73); Jorda (Stuani m71).
Goals: m47 Pedro 1-0, m59 Pedro 2-0, m79 Stuani 2-1.
Barça yellow cards: m45+2 Bojan, m88 Busquets, Xavi.
Referee: Miguel Ángel Pérez Lasá