Matchday 16 – Levante vs Barcelona
Venue: Ciutat de Valencia
Referee: Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez
Last season it was Levante who put an end to our unbeaten run in the league in the penultimate game, killing all our hopes of finishing the season as invincible, as they put five past us in the Ciutat de Valencia with an Emmanuel Boateng hattrick. That game must’ve been on all our players’ minds today as they sought vengeance and put a performance worthy of all praise.
Both teams lined up with a 3-back for the game. We were essentially forced into doing so as Semedo sustained some injury right before the match, rendering him unable to play. The midfield and front two remained the same, as we’re accustomed to seeing, but Vermaelen slipped into CB alongside Pique and Lenglet, and Alba moved out to wing-back with Dembele on the opposite side. After the official lineup was revealed, it was expected that an asymmetrical 3-back would be played where, on one side, we’d have a wing-back (Alba) and on the other side, a conservative fullback (Pique) with a winger in front of him (Dembele) as part of a front three or midfield four. However, that wasn’t the case. Dembele was given a defensive role for the duration of the match and showed incredible positional discipline as he made his way up and down the pitch just like his counterpart was doing on the other side. Despite being a surprise move, it worked out for the best. Dembele surely picked up some defensive lessons, including positioning and how/when to track back, and put in some decent tackles to stop Levante attacks. A few simple through balls did get past him but we can’t judge him on that: he’s not a defender and he was in a makeshift role. Pique and Rakitic covered for him well enough.
The first 15 minutes of the game was a complete frenzy, with end-to-end stuff and Levante looking dangerous as they’ve been throughout the league this season. They were constantly finding themselves on the counter because of Busquets and Vidal’s aggressive positioning on the pitch. They were pressing very aggressively and very high up the pitch, leaving behind pockets of space for the opposition to run into. It wasn’t the desired effect from shifting into a back-3 but we were pretty well covered due to the fact that we had 3 CBs and Rakitic covering in front of them when his two midfield companions were caught up ahead. I’ve not been a fan of Busquets’ aggressive pressing in these past few games. Aside from some of them not being great performances, they wear him out and demand things he can’t do physically – running up and down the pitch and then tracking back and covering the space behind him. He never had the legs to do this in the first place and always relied on spatial and positional awareness to do his defensive work. However, despite him and Vidal leaving the CBs exposed to runners in behind, the aggressive positioning played a part in the initial goals.
Levante’s best chance came inside the box in the 32nd minute when the ball fell to Emmanuel Boateng, who was all set to punish us again, and he, fortunately, hit the crossbar. Just three minutes later in the 35th, Busquets’ high press in the final third put pressure on the opposition and forced a turnover. The ball made its way to Messi, who was at his magisterial best and able to assist Suarez, who put us up on the scoreboard in sublime fashion.
Despite Levante’s early promises, they just succumbed to our quality after the first goal. Once again due to Busquets’ aggressive positioning, the ball was stolen from Levante at the halfway line by him, forcing another turnover, and he nonchalantly put it in Messi’s path, who gave us the lead by two at halftime. Our 2nd goal came two minutes before halftime and our 3rd came two minutes after. Who could’ve expected an Alba cutback, Luis Suarez dummy, and to top it all off, a Lionel Messi goal? Again, this resulted from pressing: this time it was Suarez hounding the defenders and stealing it. It was just another performance where Suarez reminded the world why he’s the best striker of his generation and proved how valuable he is to this team with his off-the-ball work rate, movement, and hold up play.
Even though chances were falling Levante’s way, a difference in quality showed. Their early promising start had subsided and that gave way to our players to stamp their authority on various areas of the pitch. Valverde, seeing that the game was wrapped up almost, took off Vermaelen and brought on Arthur – a positive change that would allow us to attack more and in a more organized manner. Now that Rakitic had slotted into the CB position alongside Pique and Lenglet, we finally got to see the long-desired Arthur-Busquets-Vidal midfield. Three goals were to follow now.
Vidal and Busquets were shining in all their glory now. As Rakitic had tucked in with the CBs, and Arthur was on the pitch, Vidal had the license to roam forward. He made himself available on either side of the pitch in order to help out buildup by serving as numerical superiority wherever required. This allowed him to partake in the 4th goal as he occupied space on the right side (with Dembele staying back) and drove forward to receive the ball from Suarez, who was hounding defenders again and got through the defense with an excellent dribble and cross, and to assist Messi for his hattrick goal. He now has 51 goals in 2018 and leads the La Liga chart in both goals and assists (claiming two against Levante).
Our forward play was phenomenal but so was our defense. Somewhere around the 75th minute, Messi hurt his kneecap and started bleeding profusely and from a challenge, fell down on his recently recovered elbow as well. A few minutes later, Cabaco violently tacked Dembele and saw a straight red card. Messi loomed over the dead ball but, unfortunately, was unable to convert this time and everyone expected him to go off at this time as he had been in visible discomfort for a while. However, that wasn’t the case and the final two substitutes were Coutinho in for Vidal in the 78th and Denis in for Dembele in the 81st
Speaking of Dembele, he lasted longer than expected, especially with backtracking he was assigned with, due to his physique issues and need to be subbed out after 65-70 minutes every game. The game went on, Coutinho was unlike himself and missing the mark and Denis was absolutely average once again. Despite being injured, Messi was able to set up Suarez for a 1v1 which he put wide and then later, Denis who scuffed his shot and had a golden chance saved.
Right at the death of the game, Pique was able to top off his defensive masterclass with a goal to his name, completing the manita of Levante and held up his customary five fingers as his celebration of course. He’s now scored 3 goals in his last 4 games and doesn’t show any signs of stopping soon, even saying that Messi and Suarez have 28 goals together if they add his tally to theirs. It was a Gerard Pique masterclass with Lenglet and Vermaelen also putting in absolutely solid shifts. Even though Levante was able to play into the gaps for most of the game, our defense was flawless, leaving Ter Stegen with little to do. He denied Borja on one occasion and in the 91st minute pulled out a save from the top drawer to prevent Prcic, Levante’s 70th-minute substitute, from getting on the scoresheet. We were really desperate for the cleansheet and it showed in the performance as even Messi was tracking back to his own 18-yard box to press and help defend.
This concludes the match review for today with sensational performances from Messi, Busquets, and Pique. Tune in to our next game versus Celta Vigo next weekend!
1. Dembele can defend and attack and he’s very disciplined on the pitch – media headlines won’t change a thing.
2. Rakitic needs to make way if Vidal continues playing the way he’s playing currently.
3. Pique is so underrated and there’s just too much disrespect on his name. Forever one of the greatest CBs of his generation.
4. We need a Sergio Busquets successor and fast. This should’ve been evident from Busquet’s own words when he said he only has 2-3 seasons left at the top level. He’s slowly losing his legs with age despite being just as good as before and now’s the time to find someplace to learn the trade under him and take his place within in few years.
Ter Stegen 7.5/10
Key Stats (Levante/Barcelona):
On Target: 6/9
Yellow Cards: 2/3
Red Cards: 1/0