On the opening day of the season Barça knocked seven goals past Joaquin Caparros’s Levante at Camp Nou but tonight at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium Tata Martino’s men could do no better than a 1-1 draw. Both goals came early in the game from corners with Loukas Vyntra heading Levante in front in the tenth minute before Gerard Piqué replied in similar fashion nine minutes later. The two dropped points could prove to be costly but Atlético Madrid’s draw at home to Sevilla means Barça remain leader of La Liga for the 58th consecutive week.
There were no surprises to Martino’s starting XI. Montoya came in for the suspended Dani Alves, Fabregas moved back to midfield in place of the injured Iniesta and Alexis, Messi and Pedro started up front. Caparros employed a defensive 4-5-1 formation with the two wide midfielders, Pedro Lopez and Ivanschitz, asked to track back which sometimes gave the home team a 6-3-1 shape.
It was always going to be difficult to break through the packed Levante defence but Barça started seriously, gaining control of possession and moving the ball around neatly. However, there was little penetration and after nearly ten minutes of patient Barça build-ups Levante broke forward for the first time and won a corner on the left when Ivanschitz’s cross was deflected off Piqué. Ivanschitz took an outswinging corner and Vyntra escaped Fabregas’s attention to jump unchallenged and glance a header into the far corner.
Barça looked a bit rattled by the goal but the players worked hard to try and find a response. Montoya was one of the only players who found any space going forward but his final ball was missing. In the 12th minute Xavi chipped a pass over the defence for Montoya to attack but with Pedro and Messi waiting in the middle the full-back sent his low cross too close to Levante keeper Keylor Navas. Pedro recovered from a slip to send in Barça’s first shot in the 17th minute but Navas had an easy save. Then a couple of minutes later Barça won a corner on the left. Xavi sent in an inswinger and Piqué, who paused in his run to gain a yard behind Ivanschitz, rose to glance the ball inside the far post.
Barça’s equalizer led to a cagey spell where neither side could make much headway and Barça were clearly lacking ideas in attack. The lack of a way through led to Piqué going on one of his solo runs forward, only to lose the ball, and as Levante broke away Mascherano was forced to bring down an opponent for which he was booked.
Barça became a bit more lively towards the end of a disappointing first half. Alexis made a run infield and found Messi on the edge of the area, a defender managed to nudge the ball away but it broke to Xavi who drove a low shot narrowly wide. Messi then found Alexis who lined the ball up for Busquets but his shot was charged down. Messi tried his luck with a 35-yard free-kick but he didn’t seem convinced of his chances and sent his shot a yard wide. The last decent moment of the half came when Pedro used a delightful flick with the outside of his right foot to skip past Vyntra’s lunge but as so often tonight the cross failed to find a Barça player with Pedro blasting the ball against David Navarro’s midriff.
Barça continued to push further forward in the second half. Alexis’s cross was cleared straight to Montoya who fired his angled volley straight at Navas. Then Fabregas’s pass sent Alexis into the area, Navas came out and closed the angle and when Alexis tried to turn the keeper managed to get a hand to the ball and Alexis lost possession. Fabregas tried to turn up the pressure with a bullet of a shot from outside the area but Navas followed the flight well and beat the ball away. Xavi sent a soft shot over the bar and with Barça falling too often into Levante’s offside trap the frustration was beginning to tell.
Barça’s opportunity to win the game came with three clear chances around the hour mark. In the 59th minute Messi played the ball forward to Fabregas and continued his run into the area to receive the clever flicked return, Navas got down brilliantly to stop Messi’s shot but the ball ran to Xavi who was only about eight yards out but his shot failed to beat Juanfran who stretched himself well near the line and as the ball flew up Messi was flagged offside. Three minutes later Alba got free on the left and he pulled his low cross back to Messi but the Argentinian was prevented again by another good block from Juanfran.
Barça should have continued to raise the pace but the belief began to go. Levante began to sense it was going to be their day and with the occasional break the home team could have sneaked it. Pedro Lopez had the best Levante chance in the 67th minute from Nikos’s cross but his volley was deflected wide for a corner. Soon after, it was Ruben crossing from the left for Ivanschitz to try a header but Valdés had it well covered. Ivanschitz had another effort with a cracking 25-yard drive but Valdés was alert to make a spectacular diving save.
Martino was reluctant to change things but eventually he brought on Sergi Roberto, Tello and Jean-Marie Dongou in place of Fabregas, Pedro and Xavi. Fabregas was visibly annoyed when he came off and it’s probably fair to say the substitutions didn’t improve things. The best moment came from Tello in the 85th minute when he cut inside and shot from 20 yards but Navas just managed to get his fingertips to the ball and divert it round the post.
There was a final chance in the 88th minute for Levante but Pedro Lopez shot too quickly and Valdés saved comfortably. Levante continued to defend doggedly but this went to extremes in the 89th minute when Juanfran outrageously rugby-tackled Dongou, the referee Carlos del Cerro Grande showed a yellow card when a red might have been more appropriate. Barça’s frustration was seen in injury time with Piqué protesting at not winning a corner. Then in the last act Tello chipped in a cross, Piqué controlled but couldn’t turn and when the ball came to Alexis his shot was blocked by the packed defence.
Trying to break down such defensive teams is often complicated. Sometimes a bit of luck comes early on and we end up steamrollering the opponent, but on days like today if we don’t get the breaks, and we don’t find the inspiration in the final third of the pitch, the possibility of this type of result is always there. It could have been worse of course if Atlético had beaten Sevilla. As things stand we have a fascinating top-of-the-table battle with Barça and Atlético on 51 points, and Real Madrid, who were five points behind us two weeks ago, now a point behind on 50.
Levante: Keylor Navas; Juanfran, Vyntra, D.Navarro, Nikos; Pedro Lopez, Diop, Simao, Rubén García (El Adoua m73), Ivanschitz (S.Pinto m87); El Zhar (Angel m56).
Barça: Valdés 7; Montoya 5.5, Piqué 6.5, Mascherano 7, Alba 6.5; Xavi 5.5 (Dongou m84, –), Busquets 6, Fabregas 6.5 (Sergi Roberto m73, 6); Alexis 5.5, Messi 6, Pedro 6.5 (Tello m77, 6.5).
Goals: m10 Vyntra 1-0, m19 Piqué 1-1.
Yellow cards: m34 Mascherano, m81 Ivanschitz, m89 Juanfran.