A second-half brace from Lionel Messi earned Barcelona a hard fought 2-1 victory at Levante, trimming the gap atop the La Liga standings to four points ahead of next weekend’s El Clasico showdown with Real Madrid.
Victor Valdes and Alexis Sanchez avoided yellow cards, guaranteeing their presence against Los Blancos, while Dani Alves and Gerard Pique both received the green light from the medical staff and have been cleared to play. With their addition, Barcelona now stand poised to confront Madrid at near-full strength, missing just one piece (David Villa) from their ideal starting eleven.
On a day when Cristiano Ronaldo set a La Liga record with his 41st goal of the season, Messi matched the feat, bagging his 40th and 41st goals of the campaign, while elevating his season total to a staggering 63 in all competitions. It’s not often we have the privilege to watch two players break the same record on the same day. But this season is truly special. We are witnessing two of the greatest scorers of all-time square off in a head-to-head battle for the ages.
Not since the epic homerun race of 1998 between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, as they battled to break Roger Maris’ hallowed home-run record, has the sporting world enjoyed such a clash of offensive juggernauts.
Guardiola deployed an apparent 3-1-3-1-2 formation to begin the match, with Pique, Dani Alves and Andres Iniesta starting on the bench. Despite their absence, the Catalans started brightly and created a handful of opportunities in the opening minutes. Pedro saw a close-range shot well blocked by Gustavo Munua before Alexis Sanchez worked his way to the touchline and floated a pass to an unmarked Thiago Alcantara, who sent a powerful-header flashing wide of the near-post from six yards out.
Pedro Lopez showed great hustle to block Thiago’s attempt in the area before Munua was called upon again to parry away Adriano’s long-range drive. The blaugrana came close in the 18th minute, as another clever run by Thiago saw the midfielder collect Messi’s lofted pass and direct a glancing header into the hands of Munua before Levante took a surprise lead against the run of play.
An error from Victor Valdes, who could not cleanly field the Levante corner kick, resulted in Pedro Lopez heading the loose ball straight at Sergio Busquets inside the area. The Barca midfielder tried to draw his arms into his body, but was adjudged to have handled the ball first and was booked for the offense. Barkero stepped up to the spot and calmly finished past Valdes to give the hosts a 1-0 advantage.
Munua did well to hold onto Cesc Fabregas’ downward header in the 28th minute before Levante wasted a gilt-edged chance to double the lead. A collision between Adriano and Valdo on the wings allowed Pedro Lopez to rush past their collapsed bodies and break clear on goal, only for the full-back to drag his shot wide of the far-post with only Valdes to beat.
Cuenca would be introduced for Xavi at the start of the second half, as Barcelona pushed forward in search of the equalizer. More support was clearly needed on the wings against Levante’s compact defensive unit, but many were left wondering why Guardiola elected Xavi as the sacrificial lamb, rather than the out-of-sorts Fabregas.
The hosts nearly made it 2-0 after the substitution, as the tenacious Arouna Kone broke away down the left flank and attempted to tee up Barkero in front of goal, only for Carles Puyol to arrive in the nick of time and clear the pass to safety.
Munua came up big for the hosts with a diving save to keep out Adriano before Andres Iniesta was introduced for Pedro in the final 30 minutes. In a defensive-minded game, playing on a surface with the footing of an ice-ring, a play-maker like Iniesta proved decisive. His sparking runs broke down the home side’s stalwart defense and helped mount the comeback.
Messi would level the match at 1-1 in the 64th minute with a curling strike from the edge of the area. After playing a quick give-and-go with Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean teed up Messi, who finally beat Munua with a strong left-footed effort that went spinning off the keeper’s gloves and into the back of the net.
Levante were pegged back after the goal and focused their efforts on preserving the draw. Messi would fire a free kick over the bar after a foul by Vicente Iborra before being gifted a chance to give Barcelona the lead when referee Teixeira Vitienes pointed to the spot.
Botelho was called for a push on Isaac Cuenca, as the winger dribbled his way into the box and fell to the ground under contact. Teixeira hesitated to award the penalty, only to be convinced by his assistant on the touchline.
Truth be told, it was a pretty soft penalty. That play does not get called seven out of ten times under normal circumstances, but the contact is definitely there and with the hosts already haven been given a penalty in the first half and Teixeira refusing to issue a second yellow card to Botelho for the foul and subsequently reduce the hosts to ten men, one can hardly cry conspiracy.
Juanfran was booked during the protests before Messi stepped up and powered an unstoppable shot into the upper right corner to give the Catalans a 2-1 lead.
The hosts threw Abdulkader Ghezzal on as a second striker, but failed to maintain enough possession to make an offensive impact. Iniesta could have won a second penalty for the blaugrana after being knocked to the ground by Sergio Ballesteros, but Teixeiras wisely decided against it.
Ghezzal had a good chance for the hosts in stoppage time, but headed over the bar from close range before Victor Valdes detained Xavi Torres’ skipping long-range strike to end the match and assure the three points.
Levante deserve praise for their defensive intensity, but were ultimately beaten by the better team, as Barcelona recorded 74% possession and out-shot the hosts 17-5. Barca have now kept a clean sheet in five of the last seven La Liga matches. A large part of the recent defensive success can be attributed to the stellar play of Javier Mascherano. “35 balls recovered in 2 games without losing any? The numbers say it all,” said Guardiola when asked about the Argentine. It makes for an interesting debate whether to play Puyol or El Jefecito for next week’s clasico. Only Guardiola knows for sure.
As for Leo, the two-goal performance sees him equal Ronaldo’s 1997 club record of scoring in ten consecutive La Liga games. In Europe, the Argentine now sits a mere four goals shy of equaling Gerd Mueller’s record of 67 goals in a single season. With a minimum of eight matches still to be played, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the record will be his come year’s end.
Next up, a trip to London to reignite old rivalries with Chelsea at Stanford Bridge. In a rematch of 2009’s controversial Champions League semi-final, Barcelona will look to dispatch their English rivals in dominate fashion. No arguments and no polemic decisions this time – just football. A comprehensive assault must be unleashed on Chelsea’s old-guard. Silence the fans. End the conspiracy theories once and for all. Let there be no doubt as to who deserved the win. For in doing so, the Catalans may finally exercise the demons surrounding this fixture and transcend to even greater heights, as the first team ever to successfully defend their Champions League crown.
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.