Barça came from behind to win 1-2 at Levante tonight to maintain the pressure on La Liga leaders Real Madrid ahead of next Saturday’s clasico. Barça suffered tremendously for the points but Leo Messi saved the day again with two second half goals after Jose Barkero had put the hosts in front with a first half penalty.
Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Sporting Gijon had taken their lead up to seven points so Barça really could not afford to drop any points today. When we were a goal down with just half an hour to play the league seemed to be slipping away, but Messi’s goals bring the gap back to four and now a victory over Madrid will leave the difference at just one point with four games to play. Let’s see who finishes strongest!
With Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué only just over their injuries Pep Guardiola decided to leave them both on the bench and start again with the defence of Puyol, Mascherano and Adriano that performed so well against Getafe on Tuesday. Cesc and Thiago came in for Iniesta and Cuenca while Messi was back in the front line with Alexis and Pedro on the wings.
The early play was totally dominated by Barça with plenty half chances. Levante defended deep with nine men back leaving very little space to go through the middle so it was clear our wide players would be important. In the fifth minute Pedro coming in from the left had our first effort but his rising shot was well saved by Munua. Alexis stuck to the right side and in the tenth minute his cross found Thiago at the near post but the header flashed just wide. There were two more dangerous crosses from Cesc and Pedro that found nobody to finish before Adriano came forward to try his luck from 25 yards but Munua was alert to save.
It all seemed one-way traffic as Munua turned a Pedro cross over and then needed to save from Thiago’s flicked header but in the 22nd minute Levante scored completely against the run of play. One quick counter attack and Pedro Lopez won a corner off Adriano. Valdés, wearing new gloves today, failed to catch or punch the corner, only pushing the ball as far as Juanfran who headed the ball back against Sergio Busquets’ arm and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Barkero coolly waited for Valdés’s dive to shoot the other way and score from the penalty.
Having dominated for twenty minutes, the goal took the wind out of Barça and there was little reaction from the team. Messi was quiet, though he did pick out Fabregas with a chipped pass but Cesc’s downward header was too close to Munua. Alexis and Pedro were not creating anything and after 35 minutes Guardiola switched Alexis to the middle, Pedro to the right and Thiago forward to the left. The result of this move might have cost us a second goal soon after, Adriano jumped for the ball with Valdo but the ball ran on for Pedro Lopez, who might earlier have been tracked by Pedro. This time Pedro Lopez got a clear run on goal and we were fortunate when his shot went wide of the far post.
I have to admit that I was worried before the game about how difficult the game would be but I thought we would win. When we got to half time with the score at 1-0 I wasn’t so sure, things were looking very complicated and a change was needed. Guardiola decided that change was to bring on Isaac Cuenca for Xavi, and it was this substitution that would prove to be decisive.
Levante gave us another big scare early in the second half after Thiago and Mascherano got in each other’s way, Kone broke forward before playing in Barkero on the left, Valdés had to come out and Barkero slipped the ball past him but Puyol was back to clear the danger. Iniesta came on for Pedro and Barça began to look more in control with the ball coming time and again to Cuenca on the right. Cuenca usually tried to go outside Juanfran and he won a couple of corners, but the only shots we had were hopeful attempts from Adriano and Cesc.
Then in the 64th minute the ball came right to Cuenca again. This time he pulled the ball back to Messi on the edge of the area, Messi held off one challenge before pushing the ball forward to Alexis who cushioned it back and Messi shot past Munua who got his fingers to the ball but couldn’t prevent the Barça equalizer. With the goal Messi seemed to come to life, a couple of minutes later he wriggled away from Iborra and Xavi Torres only to be brought down by Iborra who was booked.
Then in the 70th minute Barça won a penalty which will no doubt be disputed in some parts. Cuenca played a pass to Alexis and as he went for the return Botelho gave him a shove and down he went. The referee wasn’t going to blow but his linesman signalled the penalty and the ref gave it. Under immense pressure, Leo Messi sent Munua and the ball in different directions and Barça were in front. Alves came on as we went back to 4-3-3 for the last 15 minutes and we generally controlled things well. Though for the watching culé these minutes were very slow to pass, and when three Levante players appeared at the far post for a cross in the 93rd minute the suffering was unbearable.
If we win the league in the end we can look back at this game as being vital. If we can beat Real Madrid at Camp Nou next week the difference will be one point. The pressure on Madrid will be enormous, but first we must beat them next week, while we have the little matter of a Champions League semi-final with Chelsea on Wednesday first.
Messi’s goals took his season’s tally to 63 in all competitions, just four short of the all time European record of 67 set by the great Gerd Muller in the 1972/73 season. It was also the tenth consecutive league game that Messi has scored in, equaling the previous record of Mariano Martin in 1943 and the original Ronaldo in 96/97. Messi has scored 18 goals in those ten matches taking his league total to 41 which keeps him neck and neck with Cristiano Ronaldo for this year’s pichichi and the all time Spanish league record.
Levante: Munúa, Pedro López, Cabral, Ballesteros, Juanfran, Iborra (Ruben m89), Torres; Valdo, Barkero (Juanlu m88), Botelho; Koné
Barça: Valdés 6; Puyol 8, Mascherano 7.5, Adriano 7; Busquets 7.5, Xavi 6.5 (Cuenca m45, 7.5), Thiago 7, Fabregas 6.5; Alexis 7 (Alves m76, 7), Messi 8, Pedro 6.5 (Iniesta m54, 7).
Goals: m23 Barkero (pen) 1-0, m64 Messi 1-1, m72 Messi (pen) 1-2.
Yellow cards: m23 Busquets, m37 Adriano, m45 Botelho, m67 Iborra, m68 Cabral, m71 Valdo, m71 Juanfran