FC Barcelona kept their title dreams alive with a thrilling 2-1 win over Levante at the Ciutat de València. Considering that Real Madrid had emerged victorious at the Bernabeu earlier in the evening, Barcelona kicked off seven points behind their eternal rivals, meaning the pressure was on to keep the gap at four points heading into El Clasico. Levante took the lead through Jose Barkero’s penalty after Sergio Busquets was adjudged to have handled in the area and even took that lead into the half-time break as the Blaugrana looked lacklustre and uninspired over the first 45 minutes. Even after the break, Barcelona took a while to improve, and Lionel Messi’s equaliser came out of effectively no-where. The Argentine genius exchanged a one-two with Alexis Sanchez and smashed the ball into the corner; just like that, Barcelona were level, perhaps undeservedly so. If the equaliser was surprising, the winner was even more so, as Lionel Messi dispatched a penalty to secure all three points, after a supposedly contentious decision by the linesman to award the penalty. No matter the reaction, what’s done is done, and Barcelona may well look back on this fixture as the most important three points of the season. They dug deep to claim all three points, dare I say it, like Champions? There’s a long way to go in this La Liga title race, but the bottom line is this: Barcelona cannot stop winning.
Pep Guardiola again surprised us with his team selection, nailing his colours to the mast so to speak with a very attacking line-up. There was another start for Adriano in a 3-4-3 with Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets playing behind the frontline of Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro. Considering that Sanchez was just a yellow away from a suspension, it was bold move, one that could have easily backfired on Pep.
Barcelona started brightly, with Pedro forcing a save out of Gustavo Munua as early as the fourth minute, although his left-footed shot was never going to really test the Levante keeper. Some suggested that a more confident Pedro would have opened up his body and tried to curl the ball into the far corner with his right foot, but I think that is easier said than done, and Pedro did well to get his shot on target.
Thiago was causing havoc as well, heading the ball wide from a little over six yards out when he should have really hit the target, before he connected with a low cross from the right-wing, but his effort was blocked instantaneously by the resolute Levante defense. The next chance fell to Thiago as well, as Messi swung in a free-kick and Thiago sprung the offside trap to find the space for a free header, but the Spaniard (who just turned 21 this week) headed straight at Munua. It was a quality chance, and Barca were made to regret it just minutes later, as Levante took the lead in dubious circumstances.
Much like in the Real Madrid – Sporting Gijon game, the underdog took the lead via a penalty kick and both were given for handball. However, that’s where the similarities end. While Sergio Ramos clearly handled the ball in the area, there are question marks about the decision against Sergio Busquets. After all, if Busquets did not have any hands, or arms for that matter, the ball would have still been blocked by his body. The hands started out in an unusual position, but by the time the ball made contact, his entire torso and face were behind his hands. Busquets was merely acting on instinct, the same as any human being would when an object is travelling towards their face at a high speed. In my opinion, that was a ball-to-hand, rather than a handball. There was no intent, other than to shield his face, and isn’t that what handball is judged on: intent?
Jose Barkero stepped up and scored the resulting penalty, but even then, I didn’t feel panic was necessary, as up until that point, Barcelona had been the better side. On the other hand, when Cesc Fabregas’ header straight at the keeper was the closest Barca got to a response before the half-time interval, I started to worry. Barcelona looked shell-shocked, lethargic and most worryingly of all: human.
Isaac Cuenca replaced Xavi at the break as Barcelona piled forward in search of that equaliser, but for some time in that second period, they looked sterile. In fact, Levante posed more threat in a single attack through Kone and Barkero (which was defending expertly by Carles Puyol) than Barca did for the half hour after the Levante goal. Was the title race about to be ended before El Clasico? Were Barcelona on the brink of a collapse? Would little Levante claim the biggest scalp of them all?
Who else would step forward with the answers but one Lionel Messi? That answer? An emphatic no.
Adriano have given a hint that a storm was coming with his decent long-range shot, and just five minutes after that, Barcelona were level. Isaac Cuenca deserves a heap of credit for stretching the play on the right-hand side and his pass into Messi will not win any awards, but it was vital nonetheless. Messi was in space, he had time, and he found Alexis Sanchez to his left. Sanchez supplied Messi with the return pass and with a swing of his left boot; Messi thundered the ball into the corner of the net. It was too hot to handle, too quick to stop; it was pure Lionel Messi.
Was it deserved? Perhaps not, but football is a funny old game, although for Levante, and for the Madridistas watching at home, that joke turned sour. Just eight minutes after Messi had equalised for the Blaugrana, he put them ahead from the penalty spot, and if I could get away with it, I would leave it at that. However, for those who didn’t/couldn’t watch, this is what happened.
Isaac Cuenca was surging into the box to receive a pass from Alexis Sanchez, and before he could cross or shoot after making his first touch, Pedro Botelho extended his forearm into the winger, which sent him sprawling to the turf. Did he go down easily? Well, think about it this way: if I pushed you in the side while you were sprinting, would you fall over? Just like in the AC Milan game and the Nesta incident, a foul occurred in the area that isn’t usually given, and the linesman in this case had the cojones to make the call. It just happened that it was Barcelona benefitting again, so it receives more attention.
After Messi fired home from the spot, Barcelona fans across the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. For Messi, it was a record equalling 41st La Liga goal for the season, and his 63rd (!!!!) in all competitions. For Barcelona it ensured an eleventh straight La Liga victory and the first come-from behind win against Levante this season. While El Clasico dominates the headlines, Barcelona must first travel to England and Stamford Bridge where the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg with Chelsea awaits. Until then, Visca el Barca!