Barça’s spectacular start to La Liga continued with an excellent 0-4 victory over Levante at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium tonight. After an evenly-balanced first half Barça scored all four goals in a stunning twenty minute spell at the start of the second half. Leo Messi added another brace to take him within three goals of Gerd Muller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year, but the real star today was the brilliant Andres Iniesta who set up Messi for his two goals before firing in Barça’s third and then sending in Cesc Fabregas for the fourth.
With Victor Valdés recovered from a slight knock Tito Vilanova was able to put out ten starters who have passed through La Masia plus Dani Alves. However, an early injury to the Brazilian saw him subbed off for Martin Montoya which meant for over an hour the team was made up solely of Masia boys.
The game was very cagey early on with the pattern of the game being established. Levante sat back and tried to hit us with quick breaks while Barça played the patient game of keeping possession though there were very few gaps in Levante’s defence. It took Barça ten minutes to create anything before Iniesta showed skill on the left side of the area to send in a dangerous cross but there was nobody at the far post and Juanfran cleared. Soon after Levante broke quickly with Martins sending Juanlu away on the left, Puyol missed the cross when it came in and the ball came to El Zhar on the right, he knocked the ball inside to Barkero who cut in past Busquets before letting fly from just outside the area and Valdés did well to turn the swerving shot over for a corner.
The possession was all for Barça but the early signs were not good. However, we kept plugging away and around the twentieth minute we began to raise the rhythm. First a neat flick from Xavi found Messi who knocked the ball left to Iniesta but Messi was bundled off the ball by Ballesteros when Iniesta’s low return came back in. It was the first sign of Messi but a couple of minutes later he showed a fantastic change of rhythm to slip away from two opponents before lashing a shot just wide. Xavi was next to shoot wide from 25 yards and soon after Messi tried to slip a clever ball through for Iniesta but the Levante defence again covered the danger well.
Levante’s goalkeeper Munua had still not been tested, but on 30 minutes Messi’s chipped pass forward looking for Fabregas was headed out by Juanfran and Xavi’s sent in a powerful volley but straight at the keeper. Levante came back with some good work again from Juanlu on the left, Piqué missed his challenge and Juanlu’s cross found Barkero 8 yards out but Puyol’s marking did enough to put Barkero off and his shot went well over.
The game continued to be evenly balanced. Pedro headed a Messi free kick straight at Munua but then another Levante break led to Fabregas heading the ball out for a corner. Barkero’s kick found Juanfran at the far post and when he fired the ball back across goal Martins was very close to flicking his header in. However, Barça kept pressing forward with Alba coming more into the attack in the final minutes of the half though Levante continued to clear all the crosses that came in except for a corner which Piqué headed down but the ball bounced across the goal and wide.
At half time I think it’s fair to say the game could have gone either way. With the two contrasting styles of the teams the first goal was always going to be important and the brilliance of Iniesta and Messi made the difference just two minutes after the restart. Iniesta received the ball from Alba about forty yards out on the left, for once there was the slightest gap in Levante’s defence and Iniesta spotted the pass through to Messi who ran into the area before lifting the ball over the advancing keeper with that typical Messi scoop.
Levante tried for a quick equalizer with Barkero volleying wide but almost immediately Barça scored the second and effectively ended any hope for the home team. Again it was Messi and Iniesta with the Argentinian playing the ball out left before continuing his run into the area, Iniesta took the ball to the byline before pulling the ball back sharply for Messi to score from eight yards.
Things were obviously going our way now and everything Iniesta did was turning to gold. In the 56th minute he received the ball from Pedro before a little surge forward and a screaming shot from the edge of the area that flew in off the underside of the crossbar. Then just seven minutes later he sent a return ball in for Cesc’s run into the area and the ex-Arsenal man skipped round Munua before sliding the ball past Juanfran on the line.
For a team that had defended very well Levante must have been stunned by this four-goal blast in 18 minutes. However, Martins had a chance to pull one back after a slip from Busquets but Valdés made an excellent stop. Messi might have had his hat-trick after Iniesta sent him wriggling into the area, but after skipping past Juanfran Messi preferred not to shoot right-footed, instead turning the ball back to Pedro who was too tightly marked to get a shot. Right at the end Levante won a penalty after Michel’s run into the area with the ball seemingly destined to hit our defenders’ hands. First Piqué touched the ball with his arm as he slid across Michel’s path just outside the area, and then with Michel appealing for the Piqué handball, Puyol slid across too with the ball bouncing against his elbow first and then as he tried to get up he also inadvertedly knocked the ball again with his hand. The referee Pedro Perez Montero probably felt it was one arm contact too many and pointed to the spot but Valdés stopped Barkero’s poor penalty before then saving again as Angel’s rebound clipped off Barkero before poor Barkero missed his header with the second rebound.
This was by no means an easy win and Levante deserve some credit for their part in an interesting battle. The first half was slightly frustrating but more because Levante defended so compactly than anything else. Our patience paid off in the end and we can be thankful again to the brilliance of Iniesta and Messi. It was also good to see Victor Valdés have such a good game while Puyol also deserves credit for a very strong performance against Martins. The defeat of Madrid at Betis yesterday gave us the chance to increase our advantage and I admit before the game I felt something would go wrong. However, we now have 11 points more than Los Merengües and now we may very well begin to see our main rival for the 2012/13 Liga as being Atlético who remain just three points behind us after an impressive 4-0 win over Sevilla. Who do you guys see as being our main rival for the title now?
Levante: Munua; Lell, Ballesteros, David Navarro, Juanfran; Ibarra, Pape Diop; El Zhar (Pedro Rios m61), Barkero, Juanlu (Michel m75); Martins (Angel m68).
Barça: Valdés 8; Alves 6 (Montoya m12, 6.5), Piqué 7, Puyol 8, Alba 7.5 (Adriano m75, 6.5); Xavi 7 (Thiago m78, 6.5), Busquets 7, Fabregas 7.5; Pedro 7, Messi 8, Iniesta 9.
Goals: m47 Messi 0-1, m52 Messi, m56 Iniesta, m63 Fabregas.
Yellow cards: m74 Fabregas, m86 Puyol.