While Bayern Munich warmed up for Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final with a 1-6 away win at Hannover 96 this afternoon, this evening Barça had to wait until a Cesc Fabregas strike in the 84th minute to overcome a defensive Levante at Camp Nou. The 1-0 victory moves Barça onto 84 points and now just six more points are needed from the remaining six league games to clinch Barça’s 22nd Liga.
With problems in defence Tito Vilanova selected four full backs to form a defence with a centre-back pairing of Adriano and Eric Abidal who made his first start in 14 months and completed 90 minutes at an excellent level. After just two minutes the Frenchman demonstrated his class by shielding the ball before stylishly turning away from a Levante forward and passing the ball out to Alex Song. Levante’s unambitious approach to the game meant the Adriano-Abidal partnership was tested rarely but Abidal showed some excellent anticipation and covering work in an almost flawless first half.
It was a different story going forward. After Cristian Tello’s fine performance in last week’s 0-3 win at Zaragoza there were many who felt Barça would start with Messi, Villa and Tello in Munich. Messi was kept in reserve for Tuesday but both Tello and Villa started tonight and both had games to forget. Tello’s passing was particularly poor though he did set up Barça’s first chance in the 13th minute when his deflected cross looped across to Thiago who lacked enough power with his volley and Levante’s keeper Keylor Navas saved.
With Levante defending deep with nine players there was little room for Barça’s forwards. Andrés Iniesta was the only player who looked capable of creating anything against the packed defence. In the 16th minute he picked up a loose clearance and danced his way into the area, only to go to ground after a challenge from Pape Diop. Rather surprisingly the referee Undiano Mallenco pointed to the penalty spot but David Villa hit the spot-kick too close to Navas who also managed to get in the way of Fabregas’s rebound. A minute later Barça were nearly made to pay for the miss when Ruben fired narrowly over with Levante’s only decent effort in the first half.
Barça offered little more at the other end. Iniesta dribbled and shot straight at Navas, Tello volleyed wide from Thiago’s assist, and as the first half came to an end Villa had two efforts, the first hitting Juanfran in the face, and the second a quick snap shot from the edge of the area that almost surprised Navas.
Levante were unlucky to have a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside at the start of the second half. El Zhar dribbled inside past Montoya and Iniesta before slipping a pass through for Acquafresca’s well timed run – so well timed that the linesman failed to see that Adriano had played the Levante striker onside.
Barça continued to be frustrated by Levante’s packed defence. Iniesta was still the player who looked most likely to surprise, sending one neat back-heel for Tello but the winger’s low cross was too close to Navas. After an hour Xavi replaced Iniesta but change made little difference and soon after Pedro came on for the disappointing Thiago. Alves and Xavi both failed to hit the target with long shots and it was looking like Barça might fail to score at home for the first time since the 0-0 draw with Sevilla in October 2011.
Then with 13 minutes remaining Alexis came on in place of Tello. The Chilean took five minutes to make an impression with a good dribble to the by-line on the right of the area before crossing, but Villa skied his half volley from ten yards out. Two minutes later Alves played the ball forward again to Alexis on the right, a quick step-over made a bit of space to cross and Alexis found Fabregas 15 yards out. It seemed as though Cesc had taken too long to control the ball but he managed to pick his spot with a low shot that crept between the far post and Navas’s despairing dive.
Barça might have had another four minutes later when Fabregas let fly from 30 yards, Navas dived to push the ball away then Pedro collected the ball on the left and cut inside to fire a powerful shot that Navas did very well to tip over the bar. There was time for one last effort from Levante with keeper Navas going forward for a last minute corner but Valdés got the ball away and Undiano blew for full time.
Tuesday’s game in Munich is likely to be a very different affair so there are not many conclusions to take from tonight’s game. With both Piqué and Bartrá resting it seems likely they will form the central defensive pairing though Abidal demonstrated tonight that he has lost none of his class and elegance though it is fair to say that Levante didn’t test him much. The choice of forwards to accompany Messi will again be a complicated choice. Villa, Alexis, Pedro and Tello have all had problems with consistency this season and it is anybody’s guess to say who is most likely to perform well in Germany. Tello had very little luck tonight though the Bayern defence will not play so deep so his pace could still be very useful. Vilanova will want to keep the Germans guessing but having started Pedro and Alexis on the bench tonight logic would suggest they will start on Tuesday meaning a possible XI of Valdés, Alves, Bartrá, Piqué, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Pedro. Bayern are looking formidable and Barça are going to need to find the same intensity as shown in the 4-0 win over Milan last month to stay on the road to Wembley.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 6.5, Adriano 6.5, Abidal 7.5 Montoya 6; Thiago 5.5 (Pedro m67, 6), Song 7, Iniesta 7.5 (Xavi m59, 6); Villa 5, Fabregas 6, Tello 5 (Alexis m77, 7).
Levante: Navas; Pedro López, Navarro, Vyntra, Juanfran; Simao, Diop; El Zhar (Valdo m69), Barkero, Rubén (Roger m90); Acquafresca.
Goals: m84 Fabregas 1-0.
Yellow cards: m33 Diop, m65 Song, m89 Pedro Lopez.