Barça made a flying start to La Liga 2013/14, crushing Levante 7-0 at Camp Nou tonight. The players showed an immediate desire to impress coach Tata Martino in his first official game in charge of the team. Alexis Sanchez and Leo Messi both scored in the first twelve minutes before Dani Alves and Pedro Rodriguez made it 4-0 after 26 minutes, and then Messi added another from the penalty spot and Xavi Hernandez made it 6-0 just before the break. Pedro scored again in the second half to complete the rout.
There were three minor surprises to Martino’s first official XI as Jordi Alba, Andrés Iniesta and Neymar Jr were all started on the substitutes’ bench. This meant Adriano Correia started the season at left back, Cesc Fabregas played an attacking role from midfield and both Pedro and Alexis were preferred in attack as Barça lined up with Valdes, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas Alexis, Messi and Pedro.
There was an immediate eagerness shown by Martino’s men from the kick-off. The pressing from the front three was like in the early Guardiola days and Levante struggled to get out of their half. In the third minute Barça’s high position on the pitch led to Mascherano winning the ball 20 metres inside the Levante half, the Argentinian pushed the ball out left to Pedro who made a quick burst inside before playing a square ball across the edge of the area to Xavi who cushioned a perfectedly-timed pass through to Fabregas who drew the Levante keeper Keylor Navas before unselfishly squaring to Alexis for an easy finish. It was a splendid combination to create Camp Nou’s first league goal of the season and there was plenty more to come.
Fabregas’s attacking runs to support the front three would prove to be vital. In the 12th minute Busquets chipped a pass forward and Fabregas brilliant chested the ball back into Messi’s path, Simao Mate did enough to put Messi off from shooting so the Argentinian pushed the ball left to Pedro who might have shot but he preferred to cut a cross back to where Messi was waiting to sweep the ball home from the edge of the goal area.
Alexis failed with a spectacular overhead effort and Piqué sent a header well over but it wasn’t long before Navas was picking the ball out of his net again. Barça’s improved pressing was especially noticeable for the amount of chasing done by Messi. In the 24th minute the Argentinian robbed David Navarro near the corner flag and then after cutting inside and exchanging passes with Alves he tucked a pass through for Fabregas, who had again beaten the offside trap, but this time when Cesc tried to square to Alexis, Navas dived to intercept but the keeper only succeeded in pushing the ball out to Alves who stroked the ball home for Barça’s third. Two minutes later Messi threaded a fantastic pass through Levante’s flat defence to Pedro who shot right-footed inside the far post and Barça were four up.
Poor Navas, there was little he could do in any of the goals. However, he was given a chance to show his agility, tipping Messi’s chip over the bar and then flying across his goal to deny Xavi’s free kick. Unfortunately for Navas he was given little help by his defenders. In the 41st minute Pedro Lopez inexplicably clipped Adriano’s heels as he was dribbling the ball out of the penalty area on the left side. The referee Carlos del Cerro Grande had no hesitation in blowing for a penalty and Messi sent Navas the wrong way from the spot.
Barça ended a sensational first half performance with another goal just before the break. Alves played the ball forward to Xavi who laid it off to Fabregas before turning to dash into the area to chase Fabregas’s splendid chipped return, reaching the ball just before Navas and prodding it home.
The intensity dropped in the second half but Barça continued to play almost entirely in the Levante half. David Barral managed Levante’s first goal attempt when he headed wide from a 51st-minute corner but Victor Valdés had one of his least-involved games for a long time. On one rare occasion that the Barça keeper had the ball he set up the most exciting attack of the second half. A quick throw found Xavi who quickly passed to Fabregas who knocked it forward to Messi. The Argentinian set off on an electric run but his final shot lacked some venom and Navas got down comfortably to save.
Poor Levante. Six-nil down and Barça’s first two substitutes were the players voted the best from the recent Confederations Cup in Brazil. First Neymar came on for Alexis, with Pedro switching to the right wing. Then Iniesta was brought on, in place of Messi which suggests strongly that Martino will think about conserving his star players when he can, and Fabregas took on the false nine role.
Barça didn’t look like scoring again but then Levante gifted us a seventh. Iniesta fouled Rodas who tried to take a simple free kick back to Navas. Inexplicably, the Levante defender didn’t look first and then he also under-hit his kick, playing the ball straight to Fabregas who turned to face Navas but as the goalkeeper forced him across the goal Fabregas played the ball on to Pedro who’d come in from the right to fire the ball inside the near post.
There was little more of note in the closing minutes. Neymar was given few opportunities to show his skill though he did bring one roar of approval with a quick change of pace to take him past Pedro Lopez. The Brazilian’s enthusiasm led to one late challenge on Juanfran that earned him a late yellow card.
All in all it was a very satisfying start to the season. The 7-0 scoreline was Barça’s best ever opening game result and Martino’s effect was clear to see. The pressing was very high in the first half though it understandably dropped after the break while some of the combinations in attack were spectacular. The performances from players who will have a fight to get a starting place this season such as Pedro, Alexis and Fabregas was especially encouraging and suggests we will have a competitive squad this season. Fabregas had a particularly good game and despite not scoring himself he was involved in five of the goals. Martino’s decision to start Iniesta, Neymar and Alba on the bench also sends a message that nobody is sacred, but probably the most important development compared to last season was the decision to take off Messi. Not only does this offer more opportunities to the other forwards, it will also keep Messi fresher for the challenges ahead. On Wednesday we face Atlético Madrid in the first game of this year’s Supercopa at the Vicente Calderon. It’s a much tougher test than today’s game so having Messi that little bit fitter and keener to play can only be a positive thing.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 7.5, Piqué 6.5, Mascherano 7.5, Adriano 6.5; Xavi 8, Busquets 7.5, Fabregas 9.5; Alexis 8 (Neymar m64, 6.5), Messi 9 (Iniesta m71, 6.5), Pedro 8 (Tello m77, 6).
Levante: Keylor Navas; Pedro López, Rodas, David Navarro, Juanfran; Sergio Pinto (Pallardo h/t), Simao Mate (El Adoua h/t); Xumetra, Ruben Garcia, El Zhar (Ivanschitz m64); Barral.
Goals: m3 Alexis 1-0, m12 Messi 2-0, m24 Alves 3-0, m26 Pedro 4-0, m42 Messi (pen) 5-0, m45 Xavi 6-0, m73 Pedro 7-0.
Yellow cards: m49 El Adoua, m68 Rodas, m78 Xumetra, m88 Neymar.