Due to the Copa del Rey draw, Barça now face Levante three times in eleven days with the first meeting tomorrow at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia in week 20 of La Liga. Tata Martino has included Jean-Marie Dongou in an 18-man squad as Barça start the second half of the season hoping to shake off the challenge from Atlético and Real Madrid.
The loss of Neymar Jr for three weeks will no doubt affect Martino’s plans. With two games a week due to the Copa del Rey this is possibly the most suitable time of the season to use rotations with the intention of keeping players fresh for the Champions League and the final straight of La Liga. Having rested players against Getafe on Thursday, Martino will be able to play a strong team for tomorrow’s game. Despite the loss of Neymar, the suspended Alves, and Iniesta who has still not fully recovered from the whack on the knee in last week’s game at Atlético, Martino could still choose a team with Valdés in goal, a back-four of Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano and Alba, a midfield trio of Busquets, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas, and a front three of Alexis, Messi and Pedro.
Having lost 7-0 at Camp Nou on the opening day of the season Levante will be reasonably satisfied to finish the first half of the season in tenth place. Joaquin Caparros’s team have demonstrated against Barça’s closest rivals in the title race that they can be tough opponents. They came close to beating Real Madrid in October before two very late goals gave Madrid a 2-3 win, then just before Christmas they held Atlético at the Calderón until a 77th winner won it 3-2 for Atlético. Their home form has improved recently with four straight wins in league and cup, and as Tata Martino said in today’s press conference they are “solid, combative and quick on the break”. David Navarro, Pape Diop and Babá Diawara have all recovered from their respective injuries and the first two look likely to return to Levante’s team tomorrow.
Barça’s have happy memories at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia. 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 three victories, 1-4 in 2007/08, 1-2 in 2011/12 and last season’s 0-4 win with two goals from Messi and one each from Fabregas and Iniesta. Barça have not yet conceded a goal in four games in 2014 and I’m hoping for another clean sheet tomorrow and a comfortable Barça victory.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Dongou, Tello.
Levante: Keylor Navas; Juanfran, David Navarro, Hector Rodas, Pedro Lopez; Pape Diop, Simao Mate, Xumetra, Ivanschitz, Ruben Garcia; David Barral.
Barça: Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Prediction: Levante 0 Barça 3
Date: Sunday 19 January 2014. Kick-off 7 pm local time.