Leo Messi inspired Barça to a 5-0 win over Levante at Camp Nou this afternoon to keep Real Madrid’s advantage at the top of La Liga down to one point. Messi, playing his 300th league game, set up the first goal for Neymar Jr in the 17th minute before netting his 31st club hat-trick. Luis Suárez completed the scoring with a spectacular overhead kick to seal Barça’s 11th straight win since losing at Anoeta at the start of the year.
Luis Enrique made eight changes to the team that beat Villarreal 3-1 in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday. Claudio Bravo returned in goal and there was a new look defence with Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano and Adriano. The midfield three of Rakitic, Busquets and Xavi was the same that played at San Mames last week while up front Pedro was preferred in place of Suárez.
The changes affected Barça’s fluidity in the early exchanges and while Pedro fired the first shot on goal after just 72 seconds Levante responded with a Xumetra run in the fourth minute which ended with Barral shooting well over. Messi shot wide after Neymar’s horizontal run infield and Pedro’s cross was just out of Neymar and Messi’s reach but Levante were also coming forward, winning the first two corners of the game.
Messi had started as false nine with Pedro on the right but after about 15 minutes they switched position to immediate effect. Xavi played a cross-field ball to Montoya who touched it on to Messi on the right. The Argentinian cut inside before delivering a typical inch-perfect chip over the defence for Neymar who met the ball with a side-foot volley which looped over keeper Mariño before dropping kindly just over the line.
The goal didn’t deflate Levante who continued to find ways forward with Uche hitting a shot straight at Bartra, and then Mascherano managed to deflect Barral’s shot wide after Uche flicked on a long throw. Bravo needed to come 15 yards out of his area to intercept a Barral through ball but as the visitors looked for an equalizer they left space at the back.
One brilliant counter from Barça involving Pedro, Neymar and Messi ended with Messi putting the ball in the net only to have the goal incorrectly ruled out for an inexistant offside. Then just two minutes later Neymar sent a poor pass straight to Uche but Bartra was on top of him quickly, robbing the ball and feeding Messi who controlled before sending a right-footed shot low past Mariño. The second goal put an end to Levante’s ambition and it was one-way traffic from now on. Messi had two more chances before the break but both times his right-foot finish failed to find the target.
Barça were far more dominant in the second half. The intensity was maintained, at least until the fifth goal went in, and the team kept the visitors pinned back. Busquets became more involved, sending one superb pass through to Neymar whose cross missed Messi who was having his shirt pulled. Neymar and Messi then combined to give Pedro a half-chance but Mariño was quick to smother the ball. Then in the 59th minute, after a sustained period of pressure, Busquets chipped in another fine pass and Pedro stretched to volley the ball across to Messi who made it 3-0 with an easy finish.
Sergi Roberto was brought on in place of Rakitic and soon after Neymar drew a foul as he tried to go past Ivan Lopez and referee Melero Lopez pointed to the spot. Messi wasn’t going to let Neymar take this one and he coolly sent Mariño the wrong way to complete his hat-trick. Suárez came on for Neymar and completed the scoring six minutes later with an acrobatic overhead effort from Adriano’s cross. Mascherano also deserves credit for his 40-yard pass from the Barça half that hit Adriano in his stride. There was a final brief flurry forward from Levante at the end but the ref ignored Xumetra’s appeal for a penalty after Adriano’s challenge and Bravo saved in the last minute from Jose Mari’s angled shot. Messi came close to his fourth of the night with a blistering 20-yard drive that Mariño did superbly to fingertip over the bar.
It’s fair to say that Barça took a while to take control of the game which allowed Levante some early attacks, but with the game more open than expected the talent of our forwards was always likely to make the difference. It wasn’t the MSN trio today but Pedro put in a fine hard-working 90 minutes, characterised by him chasing down the keeper to win a corner or racing back to cover in defence. Suárez will be lifted by his splendid finish and there should also be a mention for Marc Bartra who gave a good performance at the back. However, the most praise must be reserved again for Messi who is looking as good as we’ve seen since his injury in 2013. With the Champions League resuming very soon he is looking in just the right shape to take Europe by storm.
Barça: Bravo 6.5; Montoya 6.5, Bartra 7.5, Mascherano 7, Adriano 7; Rakitic 7 (Sergi Roberto m62, 6), Busquets 7, Xavi 6.5; Pedro 8, Messi 9, Neymar 7.5 (Suárez m67, 7).
Levante: Mariño; Ivan López (Jason m71), David Navarro, Ramis, Toño; Simão, Diop (Jose Mari m78); Xumetra, Barral, Morales; Uche (Casadesus m62).
Goals: m17 Neymar 1-0, m38 Messi 2-0, m59 Messi 3-0, m65 Messi (pen) 4-0, m73 Suárez 5-0.
Yellow cards: m68 Barral, m76 Busquets.