Barcelona rode some first half luck before stepping on the gas to demolish Levante at Ciutat de València. Led by the majestic Lionel Messi who scored a hat-trick while also being an creative beast, Barcelona beat former La Masia graduate Oier Olazabal five times, as Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique also scored.
The late announcement that Nelson Semedo would miss the match with a knee problem meant changes in the lineup were necessary. Ernesto Valverde fielded three center-backs – Pique, Clement Lenglet and Thomas Vermaelen – with Jordi Alba playing on the left side of the midfield. The right side of the pitch was covered by Ousmane Dembele. In midfield Arturo Vidal once again started from the opening whistle while there was no spot for Arthur.
The hosts came charging out of the gate, like they did in the infamous match-up in the previous season. Just five minutes from kickoff Emmanuel Boateng was left in space on the right side, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a good save on a low near-post shot. Barcelona would get their first look in the 10th minute after a corner kick, but the header didn’t go on target. Just moments later Messi fired from distance, but he too couldn’t get the ball on goal.
Both teams were very aggressive without the ball which led to neither side enjoying much success in possession. Both were the most dangerous on plays off deep turnovers, but from long possession plays very little materialized. With 20 minutes in the books neither side had much to show for. Levante were always dangerous when launching counter attacks as Barcelona’s defense looked far from sure-footed. Barcelona on the other hand didn’t fire their first shot on target until the 26th minute when Oier Olazabal read Lionel Messi’s free kick idea to make the easy save.
As the two sides battled it out in midfield, the game failed to deliver much offensive excitement. But that would soon change. Levante were excellently neutralizing Barcelona who struggled to create plays in attack. Levante, however, looked more dangerous and in the 33rd minute came within inches of taking the lead, but Boateng’s thunderous drive bounced off the crossbar back into play - about a foot before the goal-line.
Two minutes later, after an uncharacteristic error from Enis Bardhi, Barcelona took the lead. Ivan Rakitić stole the ball from the Macedonian and played it to Messi. The Argentine was looking for space to take the perimeter shot, but wasn’t afforded any. With no space to take the shot, Messi somehow managed to pass the ball through three defenders to a wide open Suarez in front of goal who one-timed it past Oier for the opener.
But Levante remained the more dangerous side and the hosts were quickly back on the offensive, shortly thereafter winning already their fifth corner kick of the half. While Barcelona managed to deal with all of them, the fact that the Catalans were living far too dangerously remained. A sixth corner would follow quickly as Barcelona continued to struggle to take control of the ball.
But as Levante were attacking, Barcelona were scoring. In the 43rd minute Barcelona made Levante pay for another rare mistake. This time Rubén Rochina turned the ball over to Sergio Busquets in midfield and the Spaniard quickly sent a through ball onto the path of Messi. Under pressure from a defender, who played the Argentine onto his weaker foot, Messi would slot the ball past Oier to double Barcelona’s lead. Looking purely at the scoreboard, it was a score that was largely expected going into the game, but the score wouldn’t tell the whole truth. The Catalans capitalized on their only scoring chances but Levante were the team that dictated play and it was highly surprising the hosts weren’t on the board at halftime.
After the restart Levante again went on the offensive, but a quick Barcelona counter saw the Catalans increase their lead just two minutes in, effectively putting the game out of reach for the hosts. Suarez, Alba and Messi went on the attack and Alba found Messi in just enough space to take the shot that he dispatched out of reach of Oier for his second of the night. The hosts weren’t giving up though and ter Stegen had to make a diving save on Toño just a minute later.
Valverde made his first personnel change in the 52nd minute when Arthur replaced Vermaelen. It was an interesting substitution that added some intrigue to the lineup as Rakitić moved deeper to play as a central defender. With the healthy lead Dembele and Alba also took up more defensive positions often leaving Barcelona with a five-man back line. Still, even with five in defense Levante created chances and in the 55th minute Pique made a crucial block to prevent a goal. Moments later Messi created an opportunity to add to the lead, but Oier made a strong save.
Oier would be helpless at the one hour mark when Messi completed the hat-trick. The play started with a glorious deep pass that allowed Suarez to dazzle on the left wing before finding Vidal in space on the right side of the penalty area. The Chilean had a chance to shoot on goal, but unselfishly squared the ball to the wide open Messi in the middle who tapped the ball into the empty net.
Even though they were now in a deep hole the hosts continued to battle. In the 66th minute Levante created a good chance from a corner kick, but ter Stegen was alert to cover the near post and make a good save. In the 76th minute Erick Cabaco clumsily and recklessly went into the rushing Dembele for a direct red card, but from the ensuing free kick Messi couldn’t find the target. In quick succession then Barcelona made two substitutions. First Philippe Coutinho replaced Vidal and then Denis Suarez took Dembele’s spot.
Borja Mayoral, on loan from Real Madrid, would look to score a consolidation goal in the 82nd minute, but ter Stegen would prevent the celebrations with a fingertip save. With the additions of the creativity and calmness of Coutinho and Arthur Barcelona looked much stronger in possession. Undoubtedly, the fact that Levante played a man down for fifteen minutes added to that, but the Catalans improved in possession in the second half.
Barcelona would add another goal in the 88th minute to complete the Manita. The play started with Pique in possession in his own box and ended with Pique scoring on the other end. Arthur, Coutinho and Messi were all involved in the build-up with Messi picking up his second assist to go with the hat-trick. Ter Stegen would have to make another acrobatic save before time would run out, this one on Sanjin Prcić, to preserve the clean sheet – his third consecutive in La Liga. With the three points Barcelona remain in first place in the standings and will look to end the year on a high on Saturday against Celta Vigo.