Leo Messi turned provider tonight as Barça came from behind to beat Levante 1-4 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final. El Zhar had fired the home team into a first-half lead but Messi responded with four second-half defence-splitting passes all for Cristian Tello which ended with an own goal from Juanfran and a hat-trick for the young winger.
Tata Martino and Joaquin Caparrós both made several changes to the teams that drew 1-1 in La Liga three days ago. Martino maintained just Xavi, Pedro and Messi from Sunday’s starting line-up with Pinto, Alves, Bartra, Puyol, Adriano, Song, Sergi Roberto and Tello coming in tonight. Caparrós made seven changes with just Juanfran, Vyntra, Nikos and El Zhar starting again.
Levante’s formation was adjusted with the home team setting out in a 4-2-3-1 that looked to press and harry Barça early on. In the first minute Xumetra escaped down Levante’s right but after trying to go inside Puyol he shot weakly and Pinto had an easy pick-up. Barça responded with Pedro dribbling across the edge of the box and firing a shot that bounced out off the far post. It was the closest that Barça would come in the first 45 minutes.
The problem for Barça was that as Levante harried, the Barça midfield of Xavi, Song and Sergi Roberto generally played either too slowly, too safely or when a forward pass was tried, usually from Xavi, it failed to find its target. Tello demonstrated a couple of times early on that he could easily beat Nagore for speed but there was little service to the winger. The next best chance for Barça came in the 23rd minute when Song found Messi on the half-way line and the Argentinian took the ball forward 20 yards before chipping a pass forward for Adriano’s run into the box but as Levante keeper Javi Jiménez came off his line Adriano lobbed a cross over the keeper rather than a shot but the ball also cleared Pedro and the defence cleared the danger.
Meanwhile when Barça lost possession the defence came under pressure with Puyol looking particularly off the pace. After half an hour the game seemed evenly balanced. Barça’s patient build-up game led to a series of corners being won as crosses were cleared or shots deflected wide. Levante’s threat came from more rapid counter-attacks which often led to Barça’s stretched defence conceding free-kicks. Sergio blasted one free-kick into the wall after Bartra had been booked for handball. Then in the 31st minute Sergio sent in an inswinging free-kick from deep on Levante’s left, Puyol made a mess of his headed clearance and El Zhar fired a powerful shot straight at Pinto before beating Bartra to the rebound and stabbing the ball home.
Barça’s reaction to the goal was not impressive. For the remainder of the first half the players continued to play a patient game but with a disappointing lack of penetration. There was just one turn and shot from Messi that went a foot wide and a deflected cross from Pedro that flew too high for Messi.
Martino must have said something at half-time because the team came out much more strongly in the second half. In the 47th minute Pedro got past Juanfran and crossed but Sergi Roberto couldn’t get a good volley and sent the ball over. Soon after, Xavi sent Alves away on the right but his low cross was just out of Pedro’s reach.
Barça finally drew level in the 53rd minute but there was a massive dose of luck involved. Messi found a moment of space and spotted Tello’s run, the pass between defenders was perfect and Tello fired in a shot that Jiménez did well to save but Vyntra following up tried to whack the ball clear to his right but only succeeded in blasting the ball straight at Juanfran and the ball flew comically into the net.
In less than a minute Levante had the ball in the net at the other end but referee Alejandro Hernández Hernández had already blown for a foul by Barral on Sergi Roberto. Maybe it was the blow from the ridiculous own goal or maybe Levante were destined to fade after their early effort but this was the last time they came near Pinto’s goal.
Puyol had to go off injured with Mascherano coming on in his place. With Xavi and Song moving the ball about more quickly Barça were looking slicker and slicker. Most importantly Messi began to find more space and in the 60th minute he received the ball from Mascherano inside the centre circle and turned quickly to send a pass that put Tello clean through and the winger whipped a shot past Jiménez who despite getting a hand to the ball couldn’t keep it out.
Messi might have scored himself two minutes later after receiving Alves’s return pass but the Argentinian’s shot was well stopped by the diving Jiménez. Barça continued to turn up the pressure with Jiménez needed again to stop Xavi’s volley after Messi’s initial shot was blocked. Messi was then sent into the area by Alves but he was stretching after shrugging off a defender’s challenge and could get no power on his right-foot shot.
By the end Levante had been completely worn down and Messi found Tello twice more for another two goals. In the 81st minute Messi was fouled in midfield but he caught Levante off guard with a quickly taken free-kick followed by the killer pass and Tello scored again with another shot to the goalkeeper’s right. Five minutes later Alves passed infield to Messi who this time chipped the pass over the defence and Tello drove the ball home for his hat-trick.
The result leaves little doubt about the outcome of the tie and Martino can now use next week’s return game to rest players for the league. The difference between the two halves is demonstrated by the shots totals which for the first 45 minutes was 6-4 in Levante’s favour whereas the second half saw 17 Barça shots to just one from Levante. The positive side of the game was personified by Tello who really needed a game like this, with Neymar out injured the youngster must take his chance now if he is not to be left to the side when the Brazilian returns. The negative was Puyol who gave an erratic performance at the back before getting injured. I hate to say it about our legendary captain but he is beginning to look like a real liability.
Levante: Javi Jiménez; Nagore, Vyntra, El Adoua, Juanfran; Sergio, Camarasa; Xumetra (Pedro Rios m60) El Zhar (Nong m77), Nikos; Barral (Angel m70).
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 6.5, Bartra 6, Puyol 5 (Mascherano m57, 7), Adriano 6; Xavi 6.5, Song 6, Sergi Roberto 6; Pedro 7 (Alexis m77, 6), Messi 8, Tello 8.5.
Goals: m31 El Zhar 1-0, m53 Juanfran (o.g) 1-1, m60 Tello 1-2, m81 Tello 1-3, m86 Tello 1-4.
Yellow cards: m12 Nagore, m25 Bartra, m71 Adriano,