Barça hope to extend the record-breaking start to the league season with a trip to Valencia to play Levante tomorrow evening (Sunday 9pm local time). The Ciutat de Valencia stadium has provided a happy hunting ground for Barça in recent seasons though Levante’s impressive start to the season has seen them move to fourth place in La Liga which suggests tomorrow’s game will be far from easy.
Twice in recent years, in 2005 and 2011, we have celebrated winning La Liga at Levante. In 2005 a goal from Samuel Eto’o earned us a 1-1 draw which was enough to win Frank Rijkaard’s team their first Liga, while it was a spectacular diving header from Seydou Keita that won the clinching point in our 2011 campaign. In our other three most recent games at Levante we had another 1-1 draw in the 2006/07 season and two victories, 1-4 in 2007/08 and the 1-2 win last April when we needed a comeback with two goals from Leo Messi.
Levante have had an up and down time in recent years with their most recent promotion to the Primera División in 2010. After surviving a relegation battle in 2010/11, last season under current coach Juan Ignacio Martinez they became the early revelation, topping the table in November and holding on to win a place in this season’s Europa League. Despite a very limited budget Martinez has brought in players such as Obafemi Martins, Pape Diop and Pedro Rios while continuing to get the best from the likes of Munua, Ballesteros, Juanfran, Iborra and Jose Barkero, and this season after a slightly rocky start they have become a very solid looking outfit – only conceding five goals in their last ten games.
Levante’s home form is particularly impressive. In eight games at the Ciutat de Valencia (6 Liga 2 Europa League) they have six wins, a draw against Atlético Madrid on the opening day of the season and the defeat two weeks ago to Real Madrid when Madrid needed an 84th minute goal to win 1-2.
It’s going to be tough for Barça though with our record of six wins from six away league games with a remarkable 23 goals scored shows we needn’t fear anyone. However, we have lost away in the Supercopa and at Celtic in the Champions League. Tomorrow’s game could be somewhat similar to the Celtic game as unless Barça can gain an early advantage I expect Levante to sit back in an attempt to frustrate us while trying to win set-pieces on the break.
Tito Vilanova is still without Bartrá, Abidal, Muniesa, Cuenca and Alexis while David Villa has suffered a minor injury and will also miss the trip, though the good news is that Thiago and Adriano have both been given medical clearance and both will travel with the squad of twenty players though it seems unlikely that either will make the starting XI. Victor Valdés has a slight knee problem and may be rested which would give Pinto his first league start of the season while Oier Olazabal has been added to the squad.
Given the absence of Villa, Cuenca and Alexis we could see another chance for Cristian Tello on the left wing. If Levante sit back then we will need width, however, having said that I also feel Tello does better against teams that play an advanced defence so the width may come best from the overlapping Jordi Alba. Perhaps Iniesta will again be asked to play wide on the left as he combines very well with Alba and this would allow Fabregas to provide the threat with his runs from midfield. It’s not going to be easy and we will have to be very alert in defence and try not to give away many free kicks or corners. I’m hoping that Levante will be tired after their trip to Sweden on Thursday where they beat Helsingborg 1-3 to qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League. Barça have had a couple more days of rest and I’m counting on this advantage to lead to another away victory.
Barça’s 20-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Macherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Song, Dos Santos, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Tello.
Possible starting line-ups.
Levante: Munua; Lell, Ballesteros, David Navarro, Juanfran; Iborra, Pape Diop; Pedro Rios, Barkero, Juanlu; Martins.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
My prediction: Levante 0 Barça 2
Date: Sunday 25 November 2012. Kick off 9 pm